World Wide Words logo

Vamp

Q From Ginger Johnson: I am curious as to the origin of vamp. The vampire to vamp connection (as in Theda Bara) is straightforward, but how on earth did it come to have something to do with music?

A It has nothing to do with vampires, but its origin is almost equally weird. The word comes from the medieval French avant-pied, literally “before the foot”, in reference to the forepart of the foot, in particular the part of hose or stockings below the ankle. It became corrupted in English to vampe, said as two syllables, and then vamp. (In the eighteenth century the old pronunciation was revived through a fashion for short stockings that covered only the foot and ankle, which were called vampeys.) This sense of vamp is preserved in the meaning that denotes the part of a boot or shoe that covers the upper front part of the foot.

It seems that in the middle seventeenth century the word came to be used for anything that had been patched up or refurbished (like darned stockings, we may guess), as in the old phrase to vamp something up for repairing or improving something. This is more commonly now found in the verb to revamp, an American term invented in the 1850s from this existing sense of vamp. Nearer the end of the nineteenth century vamp was adopted by musicians for those short simple phrases, usually improvised, that one plays quietly in the background or as an introduction, presumably because they were patching up a gap or silence.

Page created 29 Jan. 2000

Support World Wide Words and keep this site alive.

Donate by selecting your currency and clicking the button.


Buy from Amazon and get me a small commission at no cost to you.

Buy from Amazon UK Buy from Amazon USA Buy from Amazon Canada Kaufen Sie bei Amazon Deutschland

World Wide Words is copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–2014. All rights reserved. See the copyright page for notes about linking to and reusing this page. For help in viewing the site, see the technical FAQ. Your comments, corrections and suggestions are always welcome.

World Wide Words is copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–2014. All rights reserved.
This page URL: http://www.worldwidewords.org/qa/qa-vam1.htm
Last modified: 29 January 2000.