Orphans by Thomas Kennington

An orphan (from the Greek ὀρφανός[1]) is a child permanently bereaved of or abandoned by his or her parents.[2][3] In common usage, only a child (or the young of an animal) who has lost both parents is called an orphan. However, adults can also be referred to as orphans, or "adult orphans".

In certain animal species where the father typically abandons the mother and young at or prior to birth, the young will be called orphans when the mother dies regardless of the condition of the father.



Various groups use different definitions to identify orphans. One legal definition used in the United States is a minor bereft through "death or disappearance of, abandonment or desertion by, or separation or loss from, both parents".[4]

In the common use, an orphan does not have any surviving parent to care for him or her. However, the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), Joint United Nations Programme on HIV and AIDS (UNAIDS), and other groups label any child that has lost one parent as an orphan. In this approach, a maternal orphan is a child whose mother has died, a paternal orphan is a child whose father has died, and a double orphan has lost both parents.[5] This contrasts with the older use of half-orphan to describe children that had lost only one parent.[6]


An Afghan girl in a Kabul orphanage.

Orphans are relatively rare in developed countries, as most children can expect both of their parents to survive their childhood. Much higher numbers of orphans exist in war-torn nations such as Afghanistan. After years of war, there are an estimated 1.5 million orphans in Afghanistan.[7]

Continent Number of
orphans (1000s)
Orphans as percentage
of all children
Africa 34,294 11.9%
Asia 65,504 6.5%
Latin America & Caribbean 8,166 7.4%
Total 107,964 7.6%
  • 2001 figures from 2002 UNICEF/UNAIDS report[8]
  • China: A survey conducted by the Ministry of Civil Affairs in 2005 showed that China has about 573,000 orphans below 18 years old.[9]
  • Russia: An estimated 650,000 children are in Russian orphanages. Orphans are turned out of the orphanages at the age of 16, and the results are poor for most of them: 40% are homeless, 20% turn to crime, and 10% commit suicide.[10]

Notable orphans

Famous orphans include world leaders such as Nelson Mandela and Andrew Jackson; the Muslim prophet Mohammed; writers such as Edgar Allan Poe, and Leo Tolstoy. The American orphan Henry Darger portrayed the horrible conditions of his orphanage in his art work. Other notable orphans include entertainment greats such as Louis Armstrong, Johann Sebastian Bach, Marilyn Monroe, Babe Ruth and Aaron North, and innumerable fictional characters in literature and comics.


Wars and great epidemics,such as AIDS, have created many orphans. World War Two, with its massive numbers of deaths and population movements created large numbers of orphans—with estimates for Europe ranging from 1,000,000 to 13,000,000. Judt (2006) estimates there were 9,000 orphaned children in Czechoslovakia, 60,000 in the Netherlands 300,000 in Poland and 200,000 in Yugoslavia, plus many more in the Soviet Union, Germany, Italy and elsewhere.[11]

In literature

Mime offers food to the young Siegfried, an orphan he is raising; Illustration by Arthur Rackham to Richard Wagner's Siegfried

Orphaned characters are extremely common as literary protagonists, especially in children's and fantasy literature.[12] The lack of parents leaves the characters to pursue more interesting and adventurous lives, by freeing them from familial obligations and controls, and depriving them of more prosaic lives. It creates characters that are self-contained and introspective and who strive for affection. Orphans can metaphorically search for self-understanding through attempting to know their roots. Parents can also be allies and sources of aid for children, and removing the parents makes the character's difficulties more severe. Parents, furthermore, can be irrelevant to the theme a writer is trying to develop, and orphaning the character frees the writer from the necessity to depict such an irrelevant relationship; if one parent-child relationship is important, removing the other parent prevents complicating the necessary relationship. All these characteristics make orphans attractive characters for authors.

Orphans are common in fairy tales, such as most variants of Cinderella.

A number of well-known authors have written books featuring orphans. Examples from classic literature include Charlotte Brontë, Charles Dickens, Mark Twain's Tom Sawyer, L. M. Montgomery's Anne of Green Gables books, and J. R. R. Tolkien. Among more recent authors, A. J. Cronin, Lemony Snicket, Roald Dahl, J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter series, as well as some less well-known authors of famous orphans like Little Orphan Annie have used orphans as major characters. One recurring storyline has been the relationship that the orphan can have with an adult from outside his or her immediate family as seen in Lyle Kessler's play Orphans.

In religious texts

Many religious texts, including the Bible and the Quran, contain the idea that helping and defending orphans is a very important and God-pleasing matter. Several citations:

  • "Do not take advantage of a widow or an orphan." (Hebrew Bible, Exodus 22:22)
  • "Leave your orphans; I will protect their lives. Your widows too can trust in me." (Hebrew Bible, Jeremiah 49:11)
  • "Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world." (The New Testament, James 1:27)
  • "And they feed, for the love of Allah, the indigent, the orphan, and the captive," - (The Quran, The Human: 8)
  • "Therefore, treat not the orphan with harshness," (The Quran, The Morning Hours: 9)

See also


  1. ^ ὀρφανός, Henry George Liddell, Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon, on Perseus
  2. ^ Merriam-Webster online dictionary
  3. ^ Concise Oxford Dictionary, 6th edition "a child bereaved of parents" with bereaved meaning (of death etc) deprived of a relation
  4. ^ Iii. Eligibility For Immigration Benefits As An Orphan
  5. ^ UNAIDS Global Report 2008
  6. ^ See, for example, this 19th century news story about The Society for the Relief of Half-Orphan and Destitute Children, or this one about the Protestant Half-Orphan Asylum.
  7. ^ Virginia Haussegger Mahboba's promise ABC TV 7.30 Report. 2009. http://www.abc.net.au/7.30/content/2009/s2615472.htm (last accessed 15 July 2009)
  8. ^ TvT Associates/The Synergy Project (July 2002). "Children on the Brink 2002: A Joint Report on Orphan Estimates and Program Strategies". UNAIDS and UNICEF. http://www.usaid.gov/pop_health/aids/Publications/docs/childrenbrink.pdf. 
  9. ^ China to insure orphans as preventitive health measure
  10. ^ "A Summer of Hope for Russian Orphans". The New York Times. July 21, 2002.
  11. ^ For a high estimate see I.C.B. Dear and M.R.D. Foot, eds. The Oxford companion to World War II (1995) p 208; for lower Tony Judt, Postwar: a history of Europe since 1945 (2006) p. 21
  12. ^ Philip Martin, The Writer's Guide to Fantasy Literature: From Dragon's Lair to Hero's Quest, p 16, ISBN 0-87116-195-8


  • Bullen, John. "Orphans, Idiots, Lunatics, and Historians: Recent Approaches to the History of Child Welfare in Canada," Histoire Sociale: Social History, May 1985, Vol. 18 Issue 35, pp 133–145
  • Harrington, Joel F. "The Unwanted Child: The Fate of Foundlings, Orphans and Juvenile Criminals in Early Modern Germany (2009)
  • Keating, Janie. A Child for Keeps: The History of Adoption in England, 1918-45 (2009)
  • Miller, Timothy S. The Orphans of Byzantium: Child Welfare in the Christian Empire (2009)
  • Safley, Thomas Max. Children of the Laboring Poor: Expectation and Experience Among the Orphans of Early Modem Augsburg (2006)
  • Sen, Satadru. "The orphaned colony: Orphanage, child and authority in British India," Indian Economic and Social History Review, Oct-Dec 2007, Vol. 44 Issue 4, pp 463-488
  • Terpstra, Nicholas. Abandoned Children of the Italian Renaissance: Orphan Care in Florence and Bologna (2005)

United States

  • Berebitsky, Julie. Like Our Very Own: Adoption and the Changing Culture of Motherhood, 1851-1950 (2000)
  • Carp, E. Wayne, ed. Adoption in America: Historical Perspectives (2003)
  • Hacsi, Timothy A. A Second Home: Orphan Asylums and Poor Families in America (1997)
  • Herman, Ellen. "Kinship by Design: A History of Adoption in the Modern United States (2008) ISBN 9780226327600
  • Kleinberg, S. J. Widows And Orphans First: The Family Economy And Social Welfare Policy, 1880-1939 (2006)
  • Miller, Julie. Abandoned: Foundlings in Nineteenth-Century New York City (2007)

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Look at other dictionaries:

  • orphan — or·phan n: a child deprived by death of one or usu. both parents; broadly: a child without a parent or guardian Merriam Webster’s Dictionary of Law. Merriam Webster. 1996. orphan …   Law dictionary

  • orphan — [ôr′fən] n. [LL(Ec) orphanus < Gr orphanos < IE base * orbho , orphan > L orbus, bereft, Ger erbe, inheritance, arbeit, work, Czech robotnik, serf] a child whose father and mother are dead: sometimes applied to a child who has lost only… …   English World dictionary

  • Orphan — Or phan, v. t. [imp. & p. p. {Orphaned}; p. pr. & vb. n. {Orphaning}.] To cause to become an orphan; to deprive of parents. Young. [1913 Webster] …   The Collaborative International Dictionary of English

  • orphan — ► NOUN ▪ a child whose parents are dead. ► VERB (usu. be orphaned) ▪ make an orphan. ORIGIN from Greek orphanos bereaved …   English terms dictionary

  • Orphan — Or phan, a. Bereaved of parents, or (sometimes) of one parent. [1913 Webster] …   The Collaborative International Dictionary of English

  • Orphan — Or phan, n. [L. orphanus, Gr. ?, akin to L. orbus. Cf. {Orb} a blank window.] A child bereaved of both father and mother; sometimes, also, a child who has but one parent living. [1913 Webster] {Orphans court} (Law), a court in some of the States… …   The Collaborative International Dictionary of English

  • Orphan —   [engl.], Schusterjunge …   Universal-Lexikon

  • orphan — [n] child without parents foundling, ragamuffin*, stray, waif; concept 414 …   New thesaurus

  • Orphan — Filmdaten Deutscher Titel Orphan – Das Waisenkind Originaltitel Orphan …   Deutsch Wikipedia

  • orphan — {{11}}orphan (n.) c.1300, from L.L. orphanus parentless child (Cf. O.Fr. orfeno, It. orfano), from Gk. orphanos orphaned, lit. deprived, from orphos bereft, from PIE *orbho bereft of father, also deprived of free status, from root *orbh to change …   Etymology dictionary

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