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 Taking the reader inside that beautiful mind (to pilfer a phrase) is what made Lethem’s novel a tour de force. Kerry Lengel,, Detroit Free Press, "‘Motherless Brooklyn’ is a noir tale for the #MeToo era," 31 Oct. 2019 Taking the reader inside that beautiful mind (to pilfer a phrase) is what made Lethem’s novel a tour de force. Kerry Lengel, azcentral, "Review: Edward Norton's 'Motherless Brooklyn' is a retro-noir fable for the #MeToo era," 31 Oct. 2019 It hasn’t shown up yet this year, but Wilkins still gets chances to pilfer goal line touches from Marlon Mack, whom the Colts need to preserve. Phil Thompson, chicagotribune.com, "Fantasy football: 10 players to watch for on the Week 6 waiver wire," 7 Oct. 2019 The 49ers turned the ball over five times in the game, yet managed to pilfer a 24-20 win from the Pittsburgh Steelers. oregonlive, "San Francisco 49ers remain undefeated after defense comes to the rescue against the Steelers," 23 Sep. 2019 According to the lawsuit, Mr. Lliviganay began working in 2017 at the warehouse Lady M operates at its headquarters in Long Island City in Queens, and was first caught pilfering cakes in November 2018. Michael Gold, New York Times, "Worker Stole $90,000 in ‘Lady M’ Cakes and Resold Them, Lawsuit Says," 9 Sep. 2019 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

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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Time Traveler for pilfer

Time Traveler

The first known use of pilfer was circa 1548

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Statistics for pilfer

Last Updated

27 Nov 2019

Cite this Entry

“Pilfer.” The Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster Inc., https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/pilfered. Accessed 7 December 2019.

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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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