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

Synonyms for pilfer

Synonyms

appropriate, boost [slang], filch, heist, hook, lift, misappropriate, nick [British slang], nip, pinch, pocket, purloin, rip off, snitch, steal, swipe, thieve

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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

Any authorized funding pilfered from a program before a contract is signed will need to be replaced later. Mackenzie Eaglen And Rick Berger, WSJ, "Support the Troops—Don’t Declare an Emergency," 10 Feb. 2019 Right now, the campus religion remains nihilist, meaning-destroying post-structuralism, whose pilfering god, the one-note Foucault, had near-zero scholarly knowledge of anything before or beyond the European Enlightenment. WSJ, "Notable & Quotable: True Religion," 25 Dec. 2018 Authorities in Indiana arrested a man on Monday who allegedly pilfered the drug fentanyl in several counties while working as a paramedic. Elizabeth Zwirz, Fox News, "Indiana paramedic arrested after allegedly stealing fentanyl, report says," 18 July 2018 D’Angelo says that the hackers may have pilfered 100 million users’ names, email addresses, and encrypted passwords. Brad Chacos, PCWorld, "Quora data breach FAQ: What 100 million hacked users need to know," 4 Dec. 2018 Since then, the very point of foreign investment has been to engineer IP transfer, which is generally done by forcing foreign firms to partner with local Chinese entities — essentially enabling those entities to pilfer IP. Charlie Campbell / Beijing, Time, "There's a Real Risk That Trump's Trade War With China Won't Change Anything," 6 Apr. 2018 Hackers can take over accounts of existing Venmo users and pilfer their money. Peter Rudegeair, WSJ, "Venmo Caught Off Guard by Fraudsters," 24 Nov. 2018 For example, researchers have found things like personality quiz services, and JavaScript components in apps, that invasively track user data or pilfer information. Casey Newton, The Verge, "How a new class of “digital martyrs” are manipulating social networks," 18 Sep. 2018 The previous sanctions, which had been in place since 1997, targeted prominent individuals and companies known to abuse human rights, imprison activists, abet the old military regime, acquire weapons, and pilfer finances. Hollie Mckay, Fox News, "Trump administration walking back Obama-era foreign policy mistakes in Burma," 22 Aug. 2018

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

29 May 2019

Look-up Popularity

Time Traveler for pilfer

The first known use of pilfer was circa 1548

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More Definitions for pilfer

pilfer

verb

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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