pilfer

verb
pil·​fer | \ ˈpil-fər How to pronounce pilfer (audio) \
pilfered; pilfering\ ˈpil-​f(ə-​)riŋ How to pronounce pilfering (audio) \

Definition of pilfer

intransitive verb

: steal especially : to steal stealthily in small amounts and often again and again

transitive verb

: steal especially : to steal in small quantities

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Other Words from pilfer

pilferable \ ˈpil-​f(ə-​)rə-​bəl How to pronounce pilferable (audio) \ adjective
pilferage \ ˈpil-​f(ə-​)rij How to pronounce pilferage (audio) \ noun
pilferer \ ˈpil-​fər-​ər How to pronounce pilferer (audio) \ noun
pilferproof \ ˈpil-​fər-​ˌprüf How to pronounce pilferproof (audio) \ adjective

Choose the Right Synonym for pilfer

steal, pilfer, filch, purloin mean to take from another without right or without detection. steal may apply to any surreptitious taking of something and differs from the other terms by commonly applying to intangibles as well as material things. steal jewels stole a look at the gifts pilfer implies stealing repeatedly in small amounts. pilfered from his employer filch adds a suggestion of snatching quickly and surreptitiously. filched an apple from the tray purloin stresses removing or carrying off for one's own use or purposes. printed a purloined document

The Various Uses of Pilfer

Pilfer is a synonym of steal, but it typically implies a particular kind of stealing. What is pilfered is usually stolen stealthily—furtively, so that no one will notice—in small amounts and often again and again. One might, for example, pilfer cookies from a cookie jar until a plentiful supply has dwindled to nothing. The word is sometimes used for that kind of stealing: the stealthy and gradual stealing of something that isn't worth much anyway:

Money was tight enough that Dickey's family used silverware pilfered from the local Western Sizzlin….
— L. Jon Wertheim, Sports Illustrated 2 Apr. 2012

But it is also used when the stolen things are valuable indeed, and the act of pilfering a serious criminal act:

For generations, scavengers have prowled this city with impunity, pouncing on abandoned properties and light poles to pilfer steel, copper and other metals they could trade for cash at scrapyards. The practice left tens of thousands of buildings so damaged that they could not be restored, turning places like the North End into grim cityscapes that appeared to have been ravaged by a tornado.
— John Eligon, The New York Times, 15 Mar. 2015

Pilfer may remind one of a similar also-serious word: pillage. The two words share more than a first syllable; pilfer comes from an old word meaning "booty" (as in, things that are stolen or taken by force, especially during a war) and pillage means "to take things from a place by force especially during a war." But despite their similarities, the words in modern use are very different. Pilfer has long since shed the connotations of violence in its etymological past; what's pilfered is not taken violently. Pillage, on the other hand, remains firmly rooted in violence and especially war; it is not a term you apply when someone's been sneaking cookies from a cookie jar.

Examples of pilfer in a Sentence

She pilfered stamps and paper from work. what sort of person would pilfer lunches from the office refrigerator?
Recent Examples on the Web Enraged Republicans accused the state of pilfering money intended for road repair and deceiving voters. Rachel Swan, SFChronicle.com, "Newsom declared the state should spend more on climate change. It ignited a firestorm," 18 Oct. 2019 The funds allegedly pilfered in these schemes came from Venezuela’s Petrocaribe oil program, which Haiti joined in 2006. Edwidge Danticat, The New Yorker, "Demonstrators in Haiti Are Fighting for an Uncertain Future," 10 Oct. 2019 Everywhere, pilfering potentates and their progeny must be nervous. The Economist, "How to hide a billion dollars," 10 Oct. 2019 People with legal prescriptions became addicted or their unattended or discarded pill bottles were pilfered for recreational use. Julie Carr Smyth, chicagotribune.com, "Here’s what’s at stake in Purdue Pharma opioid talks," 12 Sep. 2019 But numerous sources told The Chronicle the victim was Rodriguez and the thieves pilfered roughly $500,000 worth of goods. Evan Sernoffsky, SFChronicle.com, "Half-million in loot stolen from A-Rod’s car in San Francisco, sources say," 12 Aug. 2019 Just as most of these attempts to pilfer from our lexicon do. Shawn Windsor, Detroit Free Press, "Hey, Ohio State: Trying to steal the word 'THE' makes you greedy," 20 Oct. 2014 Looters frequently trawl waters for sunken ships to pilfer from, and Somali pirates have kept scientists from collecting valuable data at sea. Jennifer Leman, Popular Mechanics, "So...Why Did This Underwater Data Station Suddenly Just Disappear?," 5 Sep. 2019 Within the last few months, the signs have been pilfered three times, according to a statement on the town’s website. Robyn Merrett, PEOPLE.com, "People Are Stealing Old Town Road Signs So Often That Massachusetts Officials Aren't Replacing Them," 12 Aug. 2019

These example sentences are selected automatically from various online news sources to reflect current usage of the word 'pilfer.' Views expressed in the examples do not represent the opinion of Merriam-Webster or its editors. Send us feedback.

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First Known Use of pilfer

circa 1548, in the meaning defined at intransitive sense

History and Etymology for pilfer

Middle French pelfrer, from pelfre booty

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Statistics for pilfer

Last Updated

13 Nov 2019

Time Traveler for pilfer

The first known use of pilfer was circa 1548

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More Definitions for pilfer

pilfer

verb
How to pronounce pilfer (audio)

English Language Learners Definition of pilfer

: to steal things that are not very valuable or to steal a small amount of something

pilfer

verb
pil·​fer | \ ˈpil-fər How to pronounce pilfer (audio) \
pilfered; pilfering

Kids Definition of pilfer

: to steal small amounts or articles of small value
pil·​fer | \ ˈpil-fər How to pronounce pilfer (audio) \

Legal Definition of pilfer

: to steal especially in small amounts and often again and again accused of pilfering from passenger luggage

transitive verb

: to steal or steal from especially in small quantities found pilfering goods from a store he was guarding

Other Words from pilfer

pilferage \ ˈpil-​fə-​rij How to pronounce pilferage (audio) \ noun

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More from Merriam-Webster on pilfer

Thesaurus: All synonyms and antonyms for pilfer

Spanish Central: Translation of pilfer

Nglish: Translation of pilfer for Spanish Speakers

Comments on pilfer

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