Is there a single English word to describe when someone has appropriated property that doesn't belong to them unintentionally?

For example, say I borrow a pen from someone and absentmindedly put it in my pocket after I finish writing. I discover the pen much later. Did I steal it, or is there a term with less harsh connotations?

  • 1
    "slipped my mind" as a phrase but no single word
    – JoseK
    Jul 21, 2011 at 8:19
  • Technically in the UK and US, but I presume many other juristictions, there is no such thing as "accidentally stealing" - as a crime requires "mens rea" - a state of mind indicating culpability. If you weren't aware you were stealing then, by definition, you were not.
    – Jon Story
    Oct 9, 2015 at 21:26
  • @Stefan Mohr When I read your description, it reminded me of some legal texts I used to study long ago. This is theft anyway and you'd be legally accountable. Some might argue that it doesn't inclue mens rea (criminal mind) since it was accidental but who's to judge? :) Long story short I think to address this you can say accidental/unintentional theft; well at least it sounds better than stealing ;)
    – Yuri
    Oct 14, 2016 at 9:58

7 Answers 7


You could probably call it an honest mistake (I know, a bit illogical, but still a common phrase).

Following the precise definition, if you borrowed a pen and then failed to return it as agreed, it would still be borrowed—that is took and used with the intention of returning it.

  • From the way I originally approached this question, I think borrowed is the most appropriate. Consent was implicit in my question. "Borrowing" something without asking is more nebulous and I'll leave that to the lawyers. :) Jul 21, 2011 at 16:36

You could say you walked off with it? The OED defines this as:

to walk off with: to carry away as a prize or plunder; to steal.

but in present usage, it’s a bit broader: it can cover either deliberate or accidental stealing, depending on context. Quickly googling "walked off with" for examples, the second hit is:

$11000 Stolen Scarf Was an Accident. New York socialite says she walked off with it by accident…
    — NBC Connecticut

  • While I can see where this is coming from, to "walk off with" has no connotation of accidentally stealing. Note that in the example you used, the author explicitly added "by accident".
    – Jon Story
    Oct 9, 2015 at 21:25
  • @JonStory: I agree, by default it still connotes intention. But the connotation is not absolute, as this example shows: it is much more natural to say walked off with it by accident than stole it by accident.
    – PLL
    Oct 20, 2015 at 14:21

It is not only a question of harshness, but of meaning.

Even though you can find dictionary entries that will say (CALD)

to take something without the permission or knowledge of the owner and keep it

where it seems that it does not matter how you took it (intentionally or not), in actual use "to steal" implies intention as per following definition (MW)

to take the property of another wrongfully and especially as a habitual or regular practice

To say wrongfully implies "bad" intention and does not convey the meaning that you have in mind without further explanation.

I don't know of the word which does; all related words I looked at have this implication except the most basic and widest term: "to take".

  • 1
    Notice that the first definition includes and keep it. So intent is required in that you have to choose to not return the item. At the point when you discover that you've accidentally acquired something, you haven't made that decision yet, so intent is moot, so it's not stealing by that definition.
    – intuited
    Jul 22, 2011 at 0:40
  • "acquired" (euphemistic)
  • snarfed (regional/cultural)
  • ended up with (too many words)
  • 2
    +1 except my regional/cultural word is snaffled. Jul 22, 2011 at 0:52

I can't think of a single word that would accurately describe the act of accidentally keeping, or taking home, an item that has been willingly lent to you by its owner (or their proxy)... In my opinion, you don't really steal the object until you make the concious decision to never return it to its owner.

However, I suppose that if you happened to honestly forget to return someone's property, you could say that you inadvertently pinched (or nicked) their stuff.


Unfortunately most terms I can think of are equally harsh.

Even misappropriate (to steal something that you have been trusted to take care of and use it for your own good) implies misuse of someone else's property. However it does at least imply that you were originally given the pen by the original owner rather than just stealing it.


The word you are looking for is, "CONVERSION". Basically, the difference is, your intent wasn't to deprive the owner of his/her property. In an extreme case, taking a neighbors car to go joyriding with no intent to damage or cause any loss to its owner.


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