There’s been a lot of revamping of late. Twitter has revamped its timeline. Next month, students will take on a revamped SAT. And after New Hampshire, many of the presidential candidates are revamping their campaigns.
We’re familiar with re-, a Latin prefix meaning “again” or “new.” But what the heck is a vamp?
In short, a vamp is the front and upper part of boot or shoe. So, to revamp literally means “to patch up (some old footwear) with a new vamp.” Doesn’t sound so sexy, huh? But it’s pragmatic, cost-effective, resourceful.
The Oxford English Dictionary cites vamp in the early 1200s when the word referred to a “sock” or “stocking,” specifically the part which covered the foot and ankle. By the end of the 1500s, the verbal vamp appears: “to provide with a new vamp,” hence, “to patch up, mend, refurbish.” Before revamp appears in the early 1800s much in the modern sense we use it today, figurative cobblers would new-vamp in the mid 1600s.
Piano players and other musicians have been vamping since the end of the 1700s. The OED cites this musical term for improvisation in 1789. If you’re improvising an accompaniment, prelude, or the like, you’re sort of patching something together as you go, as the metaphor suggests.
Now, vamp, it turns out, is itself quite vamped. Via Anglo-Norman French, English ultimately fashioned vamp from the Old French avanpié, pieced together from avant (“before”) and pié (“foot”), both derived from Latin. (French uses pied today; English’s own foot is actually related.) So, an avanpié is “the front part of the foot,” fitted later for the footwear it donned. Stitch avant and pié together (compounding), cut off an a (aphesis), snip off a t (elision), form np into mp (assimilation), and voilà: it’s like a a whole new word.
Back in the Middle Ages, knights armored themselves with vambraces or vantbraces, which covered the forearm. These words join avant and bras, the French for “arm.”
Forget reinventing the wheel, er, buying a whole new pair of boots: language really knows how to vamp things up.