Thursday, March 07, 1996

DREADWORDS: Waif

When, in the early summer of 1990, the photographer Corrine Day took a young hopeful from the Storm model agency to the beach for a magazine photo shoot, she could have had no idea about the trouble she was about to cause.

Day's original Kate Moss spread for The Face's July issue of that year showed the model lost among the monochrome dunes, and the looming stacks of visual allusions to the word "waif". The model wears an Indian head dress, its feathers seized a breeze, is in the original Scandinavian "veif", meaning something flapping or waving.

Perhaps when Day chose her location she was unaware of the lines in which Henry Wadsworth Longfellow spoke of "the refluent ocean fled away from the shore, and left the line of the sand beach/ Covered with waifs of the tide, with kelp and the slippery seaweed". Her images of Moss might easily have been a parody of them, however, since Long fellow's use refers not to a number of semi transparent models despatched from London agencies, but to lost property cast up on the shore, "waifs" being the legal term, for such stuff.

Strangely, although the model and others like her were soon widely (and fairly unthinkingly) known as waifs, the word does not appear in that month's issue of the magazine. Waif, it might seem, had been reintroduced into public consciousness simply through the subliminal and perhaps unconscious references in the photographs. If, by any chance, Day was up to speed on her etymology, the roots of the word have since grown more obscure.

From as early as the 18th century "waif" was beginning to be applied to poor and homeless people. By 1847, waifs were a common enough feature of everyday life for Emily Bronte to make a kind of hero of one such creature, the gypsy waif, Heathcliff. This association of poverty with waifs, in its turn, led to an association with starvation, and consequently with fashionable skinniness. At this time, however, the word, was still used to describe members of either sex.

By the end of the century "waifs" (or "street Arabs" as they were dodgily also known) were getting organised. In 1899, the Dublin born Thomas Bernardo chartered his string of homes for children as the National Incorporated Association for the Reclamation of Destitute Waif Children. Among those to benefit from a similar organisation across the Atlantic was a young trumpeter, Louis Armstrong, who in 1913 got his first break performing in the band of the Colored Waifs Home for Boys.

By the early 1980s an adverbial form of the word had come to be increasingly used of fey women, rather than gravel voiced jazz men. The OED honours Mia Farrow with a quotation from a review from the 1980 movie Hurricane, in which the actress is said to play her part "waifishly". But while performers like Farrow and earlier stars, such as Giuliette Masina were said to have been "performing" in the style of the waif, the band of models who appeared at the beginning of the 1990s were said to be waifs.

More recently, some efforts have been made to return the term to its original, non sex specific status. Although Pulp songwriter Jarvis Cocker has been lost and slender for several years now, it is once more The Face that bears responsibility for awakening the mass media to "male waifs", with a photos hoot of a nice lad called Benjamin in the magazine's February issue.

The magazine's persistent interest in emaciation seems particularly strange when one notices that the only other fascination which The Face seems to have sustained from July 1990 to the current issue is a creeping obsession with the children's television show, The Banana Splits.

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