verb pil·fer \ ˈpil-fər \
|Updated on: 7 Aug 2018

Definition of pilfer

pilfered; pilfering play \ˈpil-f(ə-)riŋ\
: steal; especially : to steal stealthily in small amounts and often again and again
: steal; especially : to steal in small quantities


play \ˈpil-f(ə-)rə-bəl\ adjective


play \ˈpil-f(ə-)rij\ noun


play \ˈpil-fər-ər\ noun


play \ˈpil-fər-ˌprüf\ adjective

Examples of pilfer in a Sentence

  1. She pilfered stamps and paper from work.

  2. what sort of person would pilfer lunches from the office refrigerator?

Recent Examples of pilfer from the Web

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.

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.

Origin and Etymology of pilfer

Middle French pelfrer, from pelfre booty

pilfer Synonyms


make away with, make off with, run off with, walk off with;

Synonym Discussion of 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

PILFER Defined for English Language Learners


Definition of pilfer for English Language Learners

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

PILFER Defined for Kids


verb pil·fer \ ˈpil-fər \

Definition of pilfer for Students

pilfered; pilfering
: to steal small amounts or articles of small value

Law Dictionary


intransitive verb pil·fer \ ˈpil-fər \

legal Definition of pilfer

: to steal especially in small amounts and often again and again
  • accused of pilfering from passenger luggage
: to steal or steal from especially in small quantities
  • found pilfering goods from a store he was guarding


play \ˈpil-fə-rij\ noun

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