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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.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 29 Jan. 2000

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

World Wide Words is copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
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Last modified: 29 January 2000.