a person, especially a child, who has no home or friends.
something found, especially a stray animal, whose owner is not known.
a stray item or article: to gather waifs of gossip.
Nautical, waft ( def 8 ).

1350–1400; Middle English < Anglo-French, orig. lost, stray, unclaimed (compare Old French guaif stray beast) < Scandinavian; compare Old Norse veif movement to and fro; see waive

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World English Dictionary
waif (weɪf)
1.  a person, esp a child, who is homeless, friendless, or neglected
2.  anything found and not claimed, the owner being unknown
3.  nautical another name for waft
4.  obsolete law a stolen article thrown away by a thief in his flight and forfeited to the Crown or to the lord of the manor
[C14: from Anglo-Norman, variant of Old Northern French gaif, of Scandinavian origin; related to Old Norse veif a flapping thing]

Collins English Dictionary - Complete & Unabridged 10th Edition
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Word Origin & History

1376, "unclaimed property, flotsam, stray animal," from Anglo-Norm. waif, gwaif (1223) "ownerless property," probably from a Scand. source akin to O.N. veif "waving thing, flag," from P.Gmc. *waif-, from PIE *weip- "to turn, vacillate, tremble ecstatically" (see vibrate).
Cf. M.L. waivium "thing thrown away by a thief in flight." A Scot./northern Eng. parallel form was wavenger (1493). Meaning "person (especially a child) without home or friends" first attested 1784, from legal phrase waif and stray (1624). Neglected children being uncommonly thin, the word tended toward this sense. Connotations of "fashionable, small, slender woman" began 1991 with application to childishly slim supermodels such as Kate Moss.
Online Etymology Dictionary, © 2010 Douglas Harper
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Example sentences
It was a few years before she got another part as good as that of the waif.
He steals away, returning three years later transformed from waif to gentleman.
When it comes to laptops, the waif look never goes out of style.
Janie has the heart of a waif and sometimes the demeanor of a clown.
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