Most English speakers recognize vamp as a short form of vampire, a word that English borrowed from French. Spanish did likewise, changing it only slightly to vampiro. It turns out that French adopted the term from German Vampir, which had come from Slavic.

Many fewer English speakers know that there’s another and unrelated vamp that is, in the definition of the American Heritage Dictionary, ‘the upper part of a boot or shoe covering the instep and sometimes extending over the toe.’ From the noun comes the original sense of the verb vamp: ‘to provide (a shoe) with a new vamp.’ Derivative senses of the verb are ‘to refurbish’ and ‘to put together; fabricate or improvise.’ Revamp is probably more familiar than the basic verb that the compound is based on.

Vamp is opaque, meaning that sound changes have obscured its origin. In fact this short and pithy noun is etymologically a compound, and as consonant-heavy as the current form is, the word doesn’t come from old English or a Germanic language. No, Middle English took vamp—originally in the sense ‘sock’—from Old French avanpie. The first element in that compound was avaunt (modern French avant), which meant ‘in front of’ and was itself a compound that developed from Latin ab ‘off, away from,’ and ante ‘before.’ Spanish, of course, still has ante- as a prefix and antes as a freestanding word. English similarly uses ante- as a prefix, and in a card game an ante is ‘an amount of money that a player has to put in before play can continue.’ The corresponding verb is to ante up.

The second element in Old French avanpie is clear to a Spanish speaker, for whom pie is still the word for ‘foot.’ In fact native English foot is a cognate.

© 2014 Steven Schwartzman


14 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Ruth Rainwater
    Nov 03, 2014 @ 09:57:15

    I knew about the shoe sense of the word. I also know about the more slangy sense referring to a woman who’s ‘flirting’. Interesting word!


  2. shoreacres
    Nov 04, 2014 @ 21:31:24

    That’s interesting, re: vamps like the ones who decorated the covers of 1930s pulp magazines, or played roles like Lola in “Damn Yankees.” I’ve never associated them with vampires. I always assumed they got the name from the vamps of shoes, since they always were sporting outrageous footwear.

    There is another expression that surely belongs here, though: “vamp ’til ready.”
    Musicians improvising between sets, or while waiting for a new act to take the stage, use the term pretty frequently.


  3. Maria F.
    Nov 05, 2014 @ 07:55:45

    I love the word “revamp” and use it often. I also found that “vampirizar” as a verb exists in Spanish as:
    1) Chupar la sangre como lo hacen los vampiros.
    2) Aprovecharse de alguien hasta debilitarlo de manera física o mental.

    #1 makes sense, but #2 is totally new to me. I suppose it may be used in Spain or South America, but in P.R., I have never heard it.


  4. Maria F.
    Nov 05, 2014 @ 09:40:44

    The problem with the DRAE is that the only online database available is up to 2012. Apparently it takes them forever to digitalize it, or so they say. What they don’t know is that other dictionaries are already up-to-date with their current editions.


  5. Maria F.
    Nov 05, 2014 @ 10:17:37

    It might also have to do with forcing people to buy the book in print. The Larousse has always had an excellent reputation IMOHO.


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©2011–2016 Steven Schwartzman
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