A waif (from the Old French guaif, stray beast) is a living creature removed, by hardship, loss or other helpless circumstance, from its original surroundings. The most common usage of the word is to designate a homeless, forsaken or orphaned child, or someone whose appearance is evocative of the same.
As such, the term is similar to a ragamuffin or street urchin, although the main distinction is volitional: a runaway youth might live on the streets, but would not properly be called a waif as the departure from one's home was an exercise of free will. Likewise, a person fleeing their home for purposes of safety (as in response to political oppression or natural disaster), is typically considered not a waif but a refugee.
Orphaned children, left to fend for themselves, are common as literary protagonists, especially in children's and fantasy literature. The characters Heathcliff in Emily Brontë's 1847 novel Wuthering Heights and Jo, the crossing sweeper in Charles Dickens' 1852 novel Bleak House are waifs. Dickens, it may be noted, has been called "the Master of Waif Literature." Bret Harte's 1890 novel A Waif of the Plains, set against the backdrop of the Oregon Trail in the 1850s, is another example. The children in A Series of Unfortunate Events are usually waifs, in between their unsuccessful stints in the care of various relatives. In modern adult fantasy writing, it could be argued that Kvothe of Patrick Rothfuss's The Kingkiller Chronicle (The Name of the Wind and The Wise Man's Fear) was a waif, and the stories include many flashback elements – as they are of Kvothe's life told by Kvothe – to the time when he indeed was a waif.
Literary waifs are frequently depicted with a frail appearance, although such physical aspects are not inherent in the term. Such evocations may reflect the endemic malnutrition of the street urchin.
Chicago's Mercy Home for Boys and Girls, a long-term residential home for troubled young men and women from the streets and abusive homes, has published The Waif's Messenger for more than 100 years.
In nautical terms, a waif is any survivor of a shipwreck compelled to make land upon a foreign shore. In this sense it is roughly synonymous with castaway, although the latter term is generally associated with isolation; a waif (in the nautical sense) usually indicates a survivor of a marine disaster who has fallen into the care or custody of others.
"Some seven years ago...there appeared the remarkable saga of Manjiro, the shipwrecked Japanese waif who was rescued and brought to the United States by a Yankee whaling captain." 
The noun waif has a secondary nautical meaning, referring to any message that has been received via flag signals. However, in that context the etymology is most likely divergent, springing instead from the Old Norse veif, a back-and-forth movement.
Dating from the Middle Ages, when a woman was proscribed and subjected to penalties of outlawry, she was said to be “waived” and called a "waif". This waiving of the law was tantamount to outlawry since it removed all protection of the law. Women in this status were outside of the "law", and others could kill them on sight as if they were wild animals.
Many other songs use the word "waif" to romanticize street children and runaways, as in the Marc Almond song "Waifs and Strays", or the Steely Dan song "Janie Runaway", which describes the title character as being the "wonderwaif of Gramercy Park".
In botany, a "waif" is an unusual species found in the wild that is alien and either a) is unsuccessful at reproduction without human intervention, or b) only persists a few generations and disappears. Such a plant never gets "naturalized" in the wild. "Waif flora" also refers to plant species which occur on oceanic islands due to chance long-distance dispersion of seeds.
"The waif look" was used in the 1960s to describe thin, large-eyed models such as Twiggy, Edie Sedgwick and Dorothee Bis. The "gamine" look of the 1950s, associated with actresses like Audrey Hepburn (who starved as a teenager during the Dutch famine of 1944), Leslie Caron and Jean Seberg, was, to some extent, a precursor.
The term "waif" was seemingly ubiquitous in the 1990s, with heroin chic fashion and models like Kate Moss and Jaime King on the runways and in advertisements. Actresses like Ally McBeal star Calista Flockhart, Winona Ryder, recently the British actress Keira Knightley and singer Celine Dion have all been pinned with the term.
Although the heroin chic look has gone out of fashion, it still holds some popularity in Hollywood. For example, Wonderbra model Eva Herzigova was criticized over her waif-like figure. Daily Mirror columnist Sue Carroll wrote:
The supermodel, looking like a throwback to the 'heroin chic' era of waif-like undernourished models, was an X-ray of her old self, skeletally thin with greasy hair, blue lips, a cold sore and sunken eyes.—
|Look up waif in Wiktionary, the free dictionary.|
- Dictionary.com Unabridged (v 1.1). Random House, Inc. http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/waif (accessed: June 02, 2008)
- Philip Martin, The Writer's Guide to Fantasy Literature: From Dragon's Lair to Hero's Quest, p 16, ISBN 0-87116-195-8
- AmericanHeritage.com / The Ordeal of the KANRIN MARU
- The Subordinated Sex: A History of Attitudes Toward Women (2003) By Vern L. Bullough, Brenda K Shelton
- Henry F. Howe et al., "Ecology of Seed Dispersal", Annual Review of Ecology and Systematics, 1982
- "She sees nudity as just part of the job", New York Times, November 20, 1968
- "Twiggy, in Her 'One and Only' Phase", New York Times, May 10, 1983
- "Macy's Little Shop" (display ad), New York Times, October 3, 1968, page 7, and December 22, 1968, page 24
- "Calvin Klein's new campaign casts off the old stark, dark look and dons a happy, healthy one", New York Times, February 4, 1998
- "In fashion, no more dirty pictures", New York Times, February 8, 1998
- "Fashion cracks a smile", New York Times, November 15, 1998
- "Eva Herzigova" (Sue Carroll column), Daily Mirror, February 20, 2003