noun (1)
\ ˈwāf How to pronounce waif (audio) \

Definition of waif

 (Entry 1 of 2)

1a : a stray person or animal especially : a homeless child
b : something found without an owner and especially by chance
2 : an extremely thin and usually young woman
3a : a piece of property (such as property washed up by the sea) found but unclaimed
b waifs plural : stolen goods thrown away by a thief in flight


noun (2)

Definition of waif (Entry 2 of 2)

Other Words from waif

Noun (1)

waifish \ ˈwā-​fish How to pronounce waif (audio) \ adjective
waiflike \ ˈwāf-​ˌlīk How to pronounce waif (audio) \ adjective

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.

First Known Use of waif

Noun (1)

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

Noun (2)

1530, in the meaning defined above

History and Etymology for waif

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

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

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Cite this Entry

“Waif.” Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/waif. Accessed 18 May. 2022.

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More Definitions for waif


\ ˈwāf How to pronounce waif (audio) \

Kids Definition of waif

: a homeless child

More from Merriam-Webster on waif

Thesaurus: All synonyms and antonyms for waif

Nglish: Translation of waif for Spanish Speakers


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