“Revamp”: A vamped up etymology

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?

The vamp, also known as the upper, can refer to other top and front parts of a shoe. Image from Podiatry Today.


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 isthe 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.

m ∫ r ∫


English spelling can be a mess. Take the word debtmaking its own mess in Greece as we’ve seen, which features a b we write but don’t say. Whence the b?


For everything else, there's debt. "Debt." Doodle by @andrescalo.
For everything else, there’s… “Debt.” Red marker and yellow felt-tip on lined paper. Doodle by @andrescalo.

As it appears in the English of the late 14th century, debt is recorded as dete. No b, for the word comes to English from the Old French dette. No b, as that was lost – in a process linguists call elision – when those early French speakers were shaping it from the Latin debitum, “debt.” Literally, debitum means a thing “owed,” a past participle of the verb debēre, “to owe.”

Starting in the Middle Ages, some scholars ‘restored’ the spelling to include its Latin b, which spelling stuck sometime in the 16th century. In this case, scribes were imitating Latin manuscripts. This effort may have aided understanding, linking the English spelling with its Latin root. The scribes may also have believed they were ‘elevating’ the English language to the likes of antiquity. Doubt, subtle, and receipt also reflect this phenomenon.

Debēre itself joins and elides the prefix de- (“away from”) and habēre (“to have, hold”). Debt, then, is literally something “away from having.” Debitdue, and duty also derive from debēre. The verb produced dever in Old French, or “duty.” A French expression meaning “to make it one’s duty” features the phrase en devoir, “in duty,” source of English’s endeavor.

And for habithabitat, and inhabit, English is also indebted to habēre – as well as malady, with its French root ultimately eliding the Latin male habitus, “in a bad [physical] condition.” Able, too, is from the verbvia the Latin habilis (“easy to hold”). Renaissance scholars try to ‘restore’ its h, too, but this didn’t stick.

Ultimately, a debt is dependent upon some sort of gift. This holds true, too, etymologically, if we’re generous. Indo-European scholars take the Latin habēre back to the Proto-Indo-European *ghabh-, a reciprocal root meaning “to receive” or “to give.” “To hold” something, perhaps, implies you can give it away or keep it for yourself.

Etymology doesn’t make economic debt any easier, but, concerning why we spell debt as we do, it helps.


m ∫ r ∫