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shameless pleading

Purloin

It was here a minute ago.

Dear Word Detective: The word “purloin” popped into my head the other day — I don’t know why, no larcenous intentions and I wasn’t reading Poe — and two thoughts about the word leaped into my mind as well: 1) the English language has a lot of words for “stealing” and that at one time there must have been very nuanced differences about what was being stolen and who was stealing it; and 2) this word will disappear shortly (if it hasn’t already) since nobody uses it any more and I suspect most people under the age of 30 are unfamiliar with it. Could you shed some light on the origins and nuances of “purloin”? And any thoughts you have about why we need so many ways to say something was stolen would be appreciated. — Barney Johnson.

Ah yes, “The Purloined Letter,” a story by Edgar Allan Poe (19th century orangutan fancier and noted gloom-bunny), in which detective C. Auguste Dupin goes postal in pursuit of an answer to the age-old riddle “Why is a raven like a writing desk?” No, wait, that was Lewis Carroll. I actually read that Poe story in school, but I didn’t understand it any more then than I understand the Wikipedia summary of it now.

You’re probably right about the fading fortunes of “purloin,” though with all the MFA diplomas being handed out these days, perhaps the Starbucks/MacBook set will make it their pet and keep it alive. “Purloin” is a nice, refined word for “steal,” carrying connotations of silence and stealth; a moment’s inattention and the pearls are mysteriously just … gone. “Purloin” means never having to clean up broken glass, no gunshots in the dark, more puzzlement than trauma.

“Purloin” dates back to the 14th century and comes from the Old French “porloigner,” meaning “to prolong, postpone, put or be far away” (“por,” forward, plus “loing,” at a distance, from the Latin “longus”). When “purloin” first appeared in English, it meant “to entice away” (a servant, for example), “to kidnap” (“Some odd fellows went skulking up and down London-streets, and with Figs and Reasons allur’d little Children, and so pourloyn’d them away from their Parents.” 1645), or simply “to conceal” something from public view. By 1475, “purloin” had settled on its modern definition of, as the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) puts it, “To make away with, misappropriate; to steal, esp. under circumstances which involve a breach of trust; to pilfer, filch.” The OED notes that many modern uses of the term are “humorous,” which, sadly, is often the prelude to obscurity.

Why so many words for “to steal”? Lexicographers will tell you that there’s no such thing as a true synonym, and popular usage inevitably lends shades of meaning to words that, in a broad sense, mean the same thing. The end result of “purloin,” “lift,” “pilfer,” “filch,” “embezzle,” “heist,” “rip,” “boost,” “swipe” and the like is the same (the thing is gone), but the style or manner of the crime varies with the term. To “pilfer” or “filch” is usually a surreptitious endeavor; a “heist” is a major production and often involves George Clooney.

Sometimes the obscurity of the terminology is a defensive tactic. In ages past thieves were said to “pull,” “smug,” “nobble,” “reef,” “hoist” “mitch,” “nim” and “rabbit.” Many of these more exotic terms were thieves’ argot, an underground language intended to ward off or weed out both the uninitiated and badge-bearing strangers.

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