Easily Confused Words

Easily Confused Words: Pilfer vs. Profile

Pilfer and profile are easily confused words.

The spell-check application of most word processing software programs would not catch a slip-up of these two words. Spell-check is looking for words that aren’t in its dictionary, and words that resemble words in its dictionary, but are possibly spelled wrong. Spell-check isn’t perfect. It doesn’t know and can’t guess what word you wanted, or what word you meant, it can only judge the words on the page. If you used words that are all spelled correctly, it gives you a pass anyway.

Autocorrect suggests words that start with the same letters. It’s suggesting what word you may want to save time, but quite often, its suggestions are pretty off base. They don’t help you out, but they do make you laugh.

Pilfer (pronounced “pihl-fuhr”) is a verb. It means to steal, especially a small amount of something.

Profile (pronounced “proh-feye-uhl”) has multiple meanings.

  • As a noun, it means a story or account from a person’s life. For example, Senator John F. Kennedy authored “Profiles in Courage” in the early 1960s before becoming POTUS. These were stories about famous people making hard decisions in their life.
  • As an adjective, the phrase “high-profile” describes someone famous or well-known.
  • As a noun, a person’s profile means their level of fame or notoriety. For example, social media has enabled several ordinary people to raise their profile through posting videos, glamorous photos of themselves, or both.
  • As a verb, in journalism, it can mean to interview someone for an article about him or her.
  • As a noun, in photography, it means a style of photo where the subject is sideways to the lens so only half their face and body is visible.
  • In law enforcement, it means the unfair practice of targeting people on racial or other bases for questioning, targeting, or arrest. For example, only pulling over African American drivers for a broken taillight, or to search the car without cause. Something similar is going on with the TSA at airports, persons of color and religious minorities are selected for more scrutiny by security personnel than their white, presumably Christian or non-practicing peers.

The following story uses both words correctly:

Proust was challenging the incumbent mayor of 30 years. Even after glowing profiles in local media, it was proving to be an uphill battle. But six months before the election, it was revealed that the incumbent had been pilfering local coffers for personal expenses. Predictably, this was the talk of the town and people were outraged. Suddenly Proust’s victory looked much more likely.



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