a person, especially a child, who has no home or friends.
something found, especially a stray animal, whose owner is not known.
a very thin, often small person, usually a young woman.
a stray item or article: to gather waifs of gossip.
Nautical. waft(def 8).

Origin of waif

1350–1400; Middle English < Anglo-French, orig. lost, stray, unclaimed (compare Old French guaif stray beast) < Scandinavian; compare Old Norse veif movement to and fro; see waive
Dictionary.com Unabridged Based on the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2019

Examples from the Web for waif

Historical Examples of waif

  • I am such a waif and stray everywhere, that I am liable to be drifted where any current may set.'

    Little Dorrit

    Charles Dickens

  • Sitting in the sheets, I turned over in my mind all that this waif had said.

    Micah Clarke

    Arthur Conan Doyle

  • When he took refuge in the Vatican he must have been clinging to some waif and stray of hope.

  • Edwin said she should be called Waif, and Waif she was ever after called in that house.

  • Mrs. Barry bit her lip and did not love the waif the more that she had been able to defend her.

    In Apple-Blossom Time

    Clara Louise Burnham

British Dictionary definitions for waif



a person, esp a child, who is homeless, friendless, or neglected
anything found and not claimed, the owner being unknown
nautical another name for waft (def. 5)
law obsolete a stolen article thrown away by a thief in his flight and forfeited to the Crown or to the lord of the manor
Derived Formswaiflike, adjective

Word Origin for waif

C14: from Anglo-Norman, variant of Old Northern French gaif, of Scandinavian origin; related to Old Norse veif a flapping thing
Collins English Dictionary - Complete & Unabridged 2012 Digital Edition © William Collins Sons & Co. Ltd. 1979, 1986 © HarperCollins Publishers 1998, 2000, 2003, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2009, 2012

Word Origin and History for waif

late 14c., "unclaimed property, flotsam, stray animal," from Anglo-Norm. waif, gwaif (early 13c.) "ownerless property," probably from a Scandinavian source akin to Old Norse veif "waving thing, flag," from Proto-Germanic *waif-, from PIE *weip- "to turn, vacillate, tremble ecstatically" (see vibrate). Cf. Medieval Latin waivium "thing thrown away by a thief in flight." A Scottish/northern English parallel form was wavenger (late 15c.).

Meaning "person (especially a child) without home or friends" first attested 1784, from legal phrase waif and stray (1620s). Neglected children being uncommonly thin, the word tended toward this sense. Connotations of "fashionable, small, slender woman" began 1991 with application to childishly slim supermodels, e.g. Kate Moss.

Online Etymology Dictionary, © 2010 Douglas Harper