Definitions

from The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, 4th Edition

  • n. A homeless person, especially a forsaken or orphaned child.
  • n. An abandoned young animal.
  • n. Something found and unclaimed, as an object cast up by the sea.
  • n. Nautical See waft.

from Wiktionary, Creative Commons Attribution/Share-Alike License

  • n. Goods found of which the owner is not known; originally, such goods as a pursued thief threw away to prevent being apprehended, which belonged to the king unless the owner made pursuit of the felon, took him, and brought him to justice.
  • n. Hence, anything found, or without an owner; that which comes along, as it were, by chance.
  • n. A wanderer; a castaway; a stray; a homeless child.

from the GNU version of the Collaborative International Dictionary of English

  • n. Goods found of which the owner is not known; originally, such goods as a pursued thief threw away to prevent being apprehended, which belonged to the king unless the owner made pursuit of the felon, took him, and brought him to justice.
  • n. Hence, anything found, or without an owner; that which comes along, as it were, by chance.
  • n. A wanderer; a castaway; a stray; a homeless child.

from The Century Dictionary and Cyclopedia

  • n. Anything blown by the wind or drifted in by the ocean; a thing tossed abroad and abandoned; a stray or odd piece or article.
  • n. In law: Goods found of which the owner is not known.
  • n. Such goods as a thief, when pursued, throws away to prevent being apprehended.
  • n. A wanderer; one who is lost; a neglected, homeless wretch: applied also to beasts.
  • n. Same as weft or waft.
  • Vagabond; worthless; ignoble; inferior. Also waff.

from WordNet 3.0 Copyright 2006 by Princeton University. All rights reserved.

  • n. a homeless child especially one forsaken or orphaned

Etymologies

Middle English, ownerless property, stray animal, from Anglo-Norman, probably of Scandinavian origin; see weip- in Indo-European roots.
Probably of Scandinavian origin; see weip- in Indo-European roots.
(American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition)
From Anglo-Norman, possibly from Old French guaif ("stray beast"), related to Old Norse veif ("movement to and fro"). (Wiktionary)

Examples

  • The word waif has appeared in 19 New York Times articles in the past year, including this week in Monday's editions in "From Boys to Men," by Guy Trebay:

    NYT > Home Page

  • "I hate to use the word waif, but what else can you call all these skinny young hairless guys?"

    NYT > Home Page

  • Learn more about the word "waif" and see usage examples across a range of subjects on the Vocabulary.com dictionary.

    NYT > Home Page

  • I grew an inch taller and broader between the corner of Cedar Street and Mr. Tetlow's house, such was the charm of the clean, green suburb on a cramped waif from the slums.

    The Promised Land

  • Perhaps some of them thought they befriended me for charity's sake, because I was a starved waif from the slums.

    The Promised Land

  • He liked his little protege ever since that unfortunate child -- a waif from a Chinese wash-house -- was impounded by some indignant miners for bringing home a highly imperfect and insufficient washing, and kept as hostage for a more proper return of the garments.

    Under the Redwoods

  • But quick-witted Mrs. Holmes guessed the word had been "waif" -- poor little waif, and she began dimly to comprehend the big-hearted, rough tent-man, who had tried to guard this little foreign maid from the ignorance and evil about her.

    Stage Confidences

  • The waif is a pennoned pole, two or three of which are carried by every boat; and when additional game is at hand, are inserted upright into the floating body of a dead whale, both to mark its place on the sea, and also as token of prior possession, should the boats of any other ship draw near.

    Moby Dick; or the Whale

  • If a waif is a lost wanderer, then little Poosk was a decided waif for he had gone very much astray indeed in the North American backwoods.

    Personal Reminiscences in Book Making and Some Short Stories

  • The waif is a pennoned pole, two or three of which are carried by every boat; and which, when additional game is at hand, are inserted upright into the floating body of a dead whale, both to mark its place on the sea, and also as token of prior possession, should the boats of any other ship draw near.

    Moby Dick: or, the White Whale

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