1 of 2

noun (1)

: a stray person or animal
especially : a homeless child
: something found without an owner and especially by chance
: an extremely thin and usually young woman
: a piece of property (such as property washed up by the sea) found but unclaimed
waifs plural : stolen goods thrown away by a thief in flight
waifish adjective
waiflike adjective


2 of 2

noun (2)

Did you know?

Waif itself is a stray, if we consider its first meaning the home from which it came. Tracing back to an Anglo-French adjective waif meaning "stray, unclaimed," the English noun waif referred in its earliest 14th century uses to unclaimed found items, such as those gone astray (think cattle) and those washed ashore (think jetsam), as well as to the king's (or lord's) right to such property. Stolen goods abandoned by a thief in flight eventually came to be referred to as waifs as well, as later did anything found without an owner and especially by chance. (It's interesting to note that the verb waive, used in modern English in phrases like "waive a fee" or "waive one's rights" comes from the same Anglo-French source as waif and was at one time used to mean "to throw away (stolen goods).") The emphasis on being found faded as waif came to be applied to any stray animal or person, and especially to a homeless child, and in the late 20th century the current most common meaning of "an extremely thin and usually young woman" developed.

Examples of waif in a Sentence

Recent Examples on the Web
But that was before director Denis Villeneuve wowed audiences by cutting the first book in half and plopping Hollywood's hardest-working waif (Timothée Chalamet) into an unforgiving landscape riddled with monstrous, holy worms. EW.com, 13 Nov. 2023 Meanwhile, the emerging popularity of the waif threatened to undermine the supermodels’ status. Carrie Battan, The New Yorker, 5 Oct. 2023 As a model, Grace Coddington could morph from bohemian waif to Helmut Newton hottie in the bat of an eye. Laird Borrelli-Persson, Vogue, 20 Apr. 2021 Phoenix Best has a pure and rich voice as the street waif Éponine. Pam Kragen, San Diego Union-Tribune, 5 Oct. 2023 The late-Nineties waif obsession led to a stretch when many runways featured girls who resented as bland, interchangeable adolescents. Bridget Foley, Town & Country, 26 Apr. 2023 Keane specialized in kitschy portraits of staring waifs. Mark Feeney, BostonGlobe.com, 30 Mar. 2023 From a fallow-faced waif in the early episodes to restored and radiant by the series’ end, when Blixen has successfully reinvented herself as a writing genius. Scott Roxborough, The Hollywood Reporter, 7 Apr. 2022 Instead, the sport favored a Nadia Comaneci-style waif, thin and childlike. Onnie Willis Rogers, CNN, 27 Feb. 2023

These examples are programmatically compiled from various online sources to illustrate current usage of the word 'waif.' Any opinions expressed in the examples do not represent those of Merriam-Webster or its editors. Send us feedback about these examples.

Word History


Noun (1)

Middle English weif, waif, from Anglo-French, from waif, adjective, stray, unclaimed, probably of Scandinavian origin; akin to Old Norse veif something flapping, veifa to be in movement — more at wipe

Noun (2)

perhaps of Scandinavian origin; akin to Old Norse veif something flapping

First Known Use

Noun (1)

14th century, in the meaning defined at sense 3a

Noun (2)

1530, in the meaning defined above

Time Traveler
The first known use of waif was in the 14th century


Cite this Entry

“Waif.” Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/waif. Accessed 16 Apr. 2024.

Kids Definition


: a stray person or animal
especially : a homeless child

More from Merriam-Webster on waif

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