Definition of waif in English:



  • 1A homeless and helpless person, especially a neglected or abandoned child.

    ‘she is foster-mother to various waifs and strays’
    • ‘The labor movement used the dominant culture's gendered representations of fallen women, tramps and street waifs to assert their demands for a living wage and an eight hour day.’
    • ‘Tavistock Street already has a number of problems which seem to be exacerbated by a policy of housing the waifs and strays of the borough nearby.’
    • ‘Winter for Kiev's waifs and strays is a cold, bleak daily battle for survival.’
    • ‘Merlin, Jo and Ollie are siblings; waifs and strays with an absent father and a hopeless mother who locks them out of the house for long periods.’
    • ‘Your willingness to help others is admirable, but unless you're a registered charity you'd best contain your habit of taking in waifs and offering them a hot bath and food.’
    • ‘Dutton's Epoch label seems to be turning into a home for British music's foundlings, but Cyril Scott is one of the more deserving of those waifs and strays.’
    • ‘Artie enters with a lost teen waif named Donna whom he found in an elevator.’
    • ‘Experts estimate that China has at least 150,000 waifs between the ages of 10 and 15 wandering its streets.’
    • ‘The youngsters have raised £1,800 towards the almost completed first safe house for Ukrainian waifs and strays, paid for and equipped by Kendal-based charity New Beginnings.’
    • ‘With the spread of Sunday schools and increasing literacy a huge market for religious fiction was created, stories of street waifs by such writers as ‘Hesba Stretton’ being particularly popular.’
    • ‘At his St Thomas's gym, on the run-down hill on Wincobank, world-class boxers spar among a small band of waifs and strays aged from five to 50.’
    • ‘It will also act as a staging post for medical care and feeding for some of Kiev's 10,000 homeless waifs and strays.’
    • ‘Like Lessing during the 1960s, Frances is a ‘housemother’, who fills her large home with an eclectic mixture of waifs, strays and scroungers.’
    • ‘Artful Dodgers are on every street corner waiting for poor orphaned waifs.’
    • ‘It was hard to believe this modest little place was charity shop Barnardo's, once associated with sale of second-hand items to raise funds for waifs and orphans.’
    • ‘I used to pick up all sorts of collarless waifs and strays from our housing estate in Ireland.’
    • ‘With the exception of a saintly matron, called Mama Sunshine, who collects waifs and strays, grown-ups are not to be trusted.’
    • ‘This is the simplified world of a child's memories - although Joe is no naïve waif - and it is largely remembered with fondness.’
    • ‘Coogan essentially reprises the role that made him famous, only this time he's an immigrant waif orphaned during his sea passage from the Old World.’
    • ‘Mrs Tarpen had no problem with that idea, and she rather liked the idea of helping a homeless waif off the streets.’
    ragamuffin, street urchin, guttersnipe
    abandoned infant, foundling, orphan, stray, outcast
    gamin, mudlark
    View synonyms
    1. 1.1An abandoned pet animal.
      • ‘A lost waif and stray of extraordinary beauty turned up in Aberdeen and made the front page of two national newspapers: a bluethroat looking enchantingly like a robin that had been coloured in wrong.’
      • ‘Lorraine Spencer, the founder of cat refuge Devizes Kats and Kits in Care, says she will not be taking in any more waifs and strays.’
      • ‘For the last thirty years she has been taking in waifs and strays who would otherwise have been left in kennels, or possibly even destroyed.’
  • 2Law
    A piece of property thrown away by a fleeing thief and held by the state in trust for the owner to claim.


Late Middle English: from an Anglo-Norman French variant of Old Northern French gaif, probably of Scandinavian origin. Early use was often in waif and stray, as a legal term denoting a piece of property found and, if unclaimed, falling to the lord of the manor.