1 of 2


pil·​lage ˈpi-lij How to pronounce pillage (audio)
: the act of looting or plundering especially in war
: something taken as booty


2 of 2


pillaged; pillaging

transitive verb

: to plunder ruthlessly : loot

intransitive verb

: to take booty
pillager noun

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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.

Choose the Right Synonym for pillage

ravage, devastate, waste, sack, pillage, despoil mean to lay waste by plundering or destroying.

ravage implies violent often cumulative depredation and destruction.

a hurricane ravaged the coast

devastate implies the complete ruin and desolation of a wide area.

an earthquake devastated the city

waste may imply producing the same result by a slow process rather than sudden and violent action.

years of drought had wasted the area

sack implies carrying off all valuable possessions from a place.

barbarians sacked ancient Rome

pillage implies ruthless plundering at will but without the completeness suggested by sack.

settlements pillaged by Vikings

despoil applies to looting or robbing without suggesting accompanying destruction.

the Nazis despoiled the art museums

Examples of pillage in a Sentence

Noun the pirate ship was laden with the pillage of merchant ships from across the Spanish Main Verb The enemy pillaged the town. The town was pillaged and burned. barbarians known for looting and pillaging
Recent Examples on the Web
In my youth, people who needed a geopolitical enemy looked for foes closer to home: US imperialism, capitalist pillage. Laura Kipnis, WIRED, 5 Dec. 2023 Slave-trading, mostly, along with mass murder, pillage and corruption. Sam Sacks, WSJ, 6 Oct. 2023 In contrast to their entry into Eastern European countries as liberators, Soviet soldiers entered Königsberg in 1945 as avengers, engaging in months of pillage, rape, and murder. Nicole Eaton, Foreign Affairs, 22 Aug. 2023 Both describe, in numbing detail, decades of pillage, rape, starvation, and torture. Peter Martell, Foreign Affairs, 12 Aug. 2019 The scientists think pillage ants somehow disguise themselves, so that ants in the invaded nests surrender without objecting. Elizabeth Preston, Discover Magazine, 14 Jan. 2014 This time, Goliath didn’t pillage. Bill Plaschke, Los Angeles Times, 2 Aug. 2022 Many of these works are in Western museums and were acquired by European countries from their former colonies particularly through armed pillage, military expeditions, missionary collections, and/or taken without sufficient documentation of consent or adequate compensation. Sylvester Ogbechie, Quartz Africa, 14 June 2020 The series is set 100 years after the events of the initial show and focuses, for those who know their Viking history, on the expansion of those people who love to drink mead and pillage in a berserker rage across the Atlantic, while also detailing the struggle between Christianity and paganism. Borys Kit, The Hollywood Reporter, 5 May 2022
The researchers generated the system by pillaging a phage—a virus that infects E. coli. Diana Gitig, Ars Technica, 5 Feb. 2024 But the draft makes mistakes that could limit the march-in right to too few cases and gives pharmaceutical firms an unearned pass on pillaging the taxpayers who paid for the inventions behind their expensive new drugs. James Love, Scientific American, 23 Jan. 2024 Jedi trapped behind enemy lines, including Avar Kriss, must fight to help the worlds being pillaged by the Nihil while staying one step ahead of the marauders and their Nameless terrors. EW.com, 2 Nov. 2023 He was accused of pillaging his late father's will and selling his art, rugs, jewelry and car, according to court records, which detailed how Brian dragged out the trial for nearly five years. Chris Eberhart, Fox News, 1 Jan. 2024 The city was pillaged and Jeconiah surrendered and was deported to Babylon for his trouble, along with a substantial portion of Judah's population. Jennifer Ouellette, Ars Technica, 31 Dec. 2023 The Kensington Runestone In the late 1800s many archeologists were no better than looters, pillaging objects from burial sites to put in personal collections or to sell. Daniel T. Ksepka, Scientific American, 1 Dec. 2023 Ahmad and his friends, veering into conspiracy theories, accused France of pillaging Niger’s natural supply of uranium and of working behind the scenes to destabilize the region. Rachel Chason, Washington Post, 21 Nov. 2023 Preeclampsia appears to be exclusive (or almost exclusive) to humans, and may have arisen as a by-product of the particularly aggressive ways in which our fetuses pillage their mother’s body for resources. Katherine J. Wu, The Atlantic, 16 Oct. 2023 See More

These examples are programmatically compiled from various online sources to illustrate current usage of the word 'pillage.' Any opinions expressed in the examples do not represent those of Merriam-Webster or its editors. Send us feedback about these examples.

Word History



Middle English pilage, from Anglo-French, from piler to rob, plunder

First Known Use


14th century, in the meaning defined at sense 1


circa 1593, in the meaning defined at transitive sense

Time Traveler
The first known use of pillage was in the 14th century

Dictionary Entries Near pillage

Cite this Entry

“Pillage.” Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/pillage. Accessed 23 Feb. 2024.

Kids Definition


1 of 2 noun
pil·​lage ˈpil-ij How to pronounce pillage (audio)
: the act of robbing by force especially in war


2 of 2 verb
pillaged; pillaging
: to strip of goods and possessions with ruthless violence : plunder, loot
pillager noun

Legal Definition


pillaged; pillaging

transitive verb

: to loot or plunder especially in war

intransitive verb

: to take booty
pillage noun

More from Merriam-Webster on pillage

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