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