• waif •
Part of Speech: Noun
Meaning: 1. An abandoned or homeless child or stray animal. 2. An extremely thin person. 3. (Law) A piece of found property with no indication of ownership. 4. Something waved or carried by the wind, a waif of smoke or cloud.
Notes: The meanings of today's word have settled on the first two above but the last two are still available. In Moby Dick, Melville used waif in the naval sense of a small flag, something that waves in the wind. As we will see below, the similarity of the sounds of waif and wave is not coincidental.
In Play: There are parts of the world where, unfortunately, we still see waifs in the first sense of today's word: "Lester was appalled and heartbroken at the sight of waifs roaming the streets after the cataclysm in Haiti." The second sense of today's word is prominent in the world of modeling: "After six months on her diet, Melanie was a mere waif."
Word History: Today's Good Word started out thousands of years ago as weip- "turn, tremble" and came down to Proto-Germanic as waif-. It went on to become wave in modern English but remained as something like waif or veif in the Scandinavian languages (which are also Germanic). So English borrowed it back from the Vikings in the sense of "flag" and "something loose and floating about (in the wind)." This latter sense soon became "ownerless property, flotsam, wandering animals and people". The usual slimness of homeless children led to the second meaning only recently. (We own a wave of gratitude to William Hupy today for suggesting this very interesting Good Word.)
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