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

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 The current council is dominated by the pro-Kremlin United Russia party, which the opposition accuses of engaging in corrupt schemes that pilfer city budget funds. Sabra Ayresmoscow Correspondent, Los Angeles Times, "50,000 demonstrate in Moscow in third weekend of protests for fair elections," 10 Aug. 2019 Package thieves pilfered from at least three Pearland porches recently, including two in the Oakbrook Estates neighborhood, Pearland police reported. Houston Chronicle, "Watch out for porch pirates in Pearland," 25 July 2019 Same with the porch pirates who pilfer Amazon packages. James Lileks, National Review, "President Judge Judy," 25 July 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 Raccoons, marmots, mice, and other small animals have been known to pilfer tasty morsels when given the chance. Kraig Becker, Popular Mechanics, "How to Set Up Camp," 2 Apr. 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

18 Sep 2019

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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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