Waif Goodbye

How various dictionaries define the word "waif"

Let’s say you find a “waif” on the street and take it home. Should you call an orphanage, an animal shelter, an eating disorder specialist, or the local lost and found?

The correct answer might surprise you. Webster’s New World College Dictionary lists as a first definition: “anything found by chance that is without an owner.” Its second one is the one you may have been thinking of: “a person without home or friends; esp., a homeless child.” Its third definition, “a stray animal,” makes your decision about whom to call even more confusing.

Ken Paul, an editor on the Foreign Desk at The New York Times, said he was surprised to see that WNW, the dictionary of The Times and The Associated Press, did not give its primary definition of “waif” to the homeless child. Neither does Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, which relegates the poor child to definition 2b, after 1a: “a piece of property found (as washed up by the sea) but unclaimed”; 1b: “plural: stolen goods thrown away by a thief in flight”; and 2a: “something found without an owner and especially by chance.”

Many other dictionaries do list something along the lines of “homeless or abandoned child” as their first definitions.

By now, readers of this column know that dictionaries aren’t perfect, and don’t adapt as quickly to usage as they might (and that ain’t necessarily all bad). But when was the last time you saw “waif” used to mean a found object?

Note that none of the definitions include “thin.” Yet most of the time, the “waif” of journalism is a too-thin woman. Those writers probably mean “wraith,” a ghost or spectral figure seen by a dying person, though there will be no convincing them of that.

None of the definitions include “ragged” or “poor,” either, the second choice of journalists, although that one’s not so far off: A synonym for “waif” in WNW is “urchin,” `defined as “a small child, esp. a boy, who is poor, ragged, etc. and often mischievous or undisciplined.” But “waifs” in journalism seem to be almost exclusively female, more evocative of the child on the Les Misérables poster than of Dickens.

The dickens of it is, no matter how thinly supported by dictionaries, the misuses of “waif” seems here to stay.

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Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at The New York Times, where she worked for 25 years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl.