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 A few days before news of the Astros’ sign-stealing broke on Nov. 12, in an article published by The Athletic, Manfred was made aware of accusations that the Astros had used technology to pilfer opponents’ signs. David Waldstein, New York Times, "He Let the Astros Players Slide. Now He’s Paying for It.," 22 Feb. 2020 His mission was to infiltrate the South and pilfer some of the region’s best players. Rainer Sabin, Detroit Free Press, "Why Michigan football recruiting pipeline to the South has dried up for Jim Harbaugh," 6 Feb. 2020 Peering into the window, Dud decides to pilfer the pipe. Richard Brody, The New Yorker, "The Surprise and Wonder of Early Animation," 16 Dec. 2019 Apple said that hackers had obtained nude photos of actress Jennifer Lawrence and other female celebrities by pilfering images from individual accounts rather than through a broader attack on the company's services. orlandosentinel.com, "Today in history: September 2," 2 Sep. 2019 There was Jordanesque Kobe, a one-man show who won back-to-back scoring titles in 2006 and 2007, and then captured an MVP award and two more championships when the Lakers pilfered Pau Gasol. Globe Staff, BostonGlobe.com, "For Kobe Bryant, basketball wasn’t just a vocation, it was an outlet for his genius," 27 Jan. 2020 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 Lash eventually tracks down and apprehends the man who drove away the night his team followed the wrong car—an Idaho resident named Robert Halligan who confesses to pilfering the decoy shed. Mike Koshmrl, National Geographic, "What it takes to catch antler thieves," 19 July 2019 Former Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos and his family were found to have pilfered up to $10 billion from government funds during his rule. Regine Cabato, Washington Post, "Former first lady Imelda Marcos 90th birthday bash struck by apparent food poisoning," 3 July 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

2 Apr 2020

Cite this Entry

“Pilfer.” Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/pilfer. Accessed 1 Jun. 2020.

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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

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