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.
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.
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
She pilfered stamps and paper from work. what sort of person would pilfer lunches from the office refrigerator?
Recent Examples on the WebThis fanned suspicion that important documents were still floating around the house, where bad actors hanging around the Mar-a-Lago resort might pilfer them. The Editorial Board, WSJ, 26 Aug. 2022 Facebook and Instagram regularly mine TikTok and Snapchat and pilfer the features created to destroy them. Ben Cohen, WSJ, 28 July 2022 Rogue One introduced Luna's charming spy Cassian Andor, who teams up with his fellow Rebels to pilfer the Death Star plans. Devan Coggan, EW.com, 15 July 2022 This list is not exhaustive, and criminals are constantly devising new ways to pilfer. Bob Legters, Forbes, 28 June 2022 This won’t be the last time global grifters seek to pilfer U.S. technology. The Editorial Board, WSJ, 17 June 2022 On the other hand, one of the great benefits of Strava is the ability to pilfer workout ideas from other runners, including some top professionals. Martin Fritz Huber, Outside Online, 22 Oct. 2021 Sasha had been a f---up all the way into her thirties: a kleptomaniac who'd managed to pilfer countless items from countless people over countless years. Seija Rankin, EW.com, 13 Dec. 2021 Mashing crisp, addictively seasoned Cajun fries into a shining puddle of garlic butter when there are no potatoes left to pilfer from the bag is not precisely a replacement for the genuinely healthy boon my occasional trips to Sweet Tomatoes were. Amy Drew Thompson, orlandosentinel.com, 4 Nov. 2021 See More