The word waif (from the Old French guaif, stray beast) refers to a living creature removed, by hardship, loss or other helpless circumstance, from his or her original surroundings. The most common usage is to designate a homeless, forsaken or orphaned child, or someone whose appearance is evocative of 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.
The association of "waif" with thinness, ill-health and/or somewhat ethereal qualities is a recurring literary element, although such physical aspects are not inherent in the term. Literary waifs are frequently depicted with a frail appearance, often (particularly in fantasy genres) with compensatory special abilities or powers. A "waif" in The Edge Chronicles is a thin and rather weak creature who resides in the deep wood, able to hear many sounds that other beings cannot. Such evocations may reflect the endemic malnutrition of the street urchin, or be the result of an intention or accidental conflation of the term with wraith, or spirit.
The Waif is a character in Jonathan Lethem's story K for Fake from the story collection Kafka Americana. There is also a waif character known as Bubbles, friend of Barbara (played by Claire Adams) in the 1920 silent crime film The Penalty. The character is referred to as "Bubbles, a street waif whom Barbara has befriended".
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.
"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.
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."
Still other musical references to waifs stress themes of deprivation and vulnerability. For example, in the Counting Crows song "On Almost Any Sunday Morning", the character singing the song describes himself as "Hungry like a wild / Waif or only child".
Even more pointed was the use of the word by Kurt Cobain as a euphemism for sexual assault. The title of the Nirvana song "Rape Me" appears as "Waif Me" in the printed liner notes of the Wal-Mart version.
"The waif look" was used in the 1960s to describe thin, large-eyed models such as Twiggy and Dorothee Bis. The "gamine" look of the 1950s, associated with actresses like Audrey Hepburn, 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:
Had Eva Herzigova climbed out of a coffin at a New York fashion show this week, her appearance could hardly have been more shocking. 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. Even a Wonderbra couldn't rescue the legendary 'Hello Boys' boobs, shrunk now to oblivion.
In 2006, Madrid's fashion week turned away underweight models, based on their body mass index, after protests that eating disorders develop among young girls and women trying to copy their rail-thin looks.