Wassamatta, you don’t wanna buy “Dictionary Ringtones”?

Dear Word Detective: I’ve checked your archive (I still think you should charge for access and password-protect it!) for “vamp” and “revamp”(as verbs) but found nothing (verb or noun). We’re revamping our website and I wondered if we ever really “vamped” it in the first place. Can you explain? — John R. Pearson.

revamp08.pngYou mean I should try to make money from the internet? Never! If everyone did that, next thing you know there’d be flashing ads all over the place and even junk email (can you imagine?) and all sorts of wicked people trying to scam their fellow cybernauts. No, I like the internet just the way it is: dignified, rigorously non-commercial and free. By the way, 1994 says to say hello.

I suspect that the first order of business is to explain that “revamp” has nothing to do with “vampire,” which the Oxford English Dictionary cheerfully defines as “A preternatural being of a malignant nature (in the original and usual form of the belief, a reanimated corpse), supposed to seek nourishment, or do harm, by sucking the blood of sleeping persons.” The word “vampire” comes from Slavic roots meaning “A preternatural being…” and so forth. Persons who exploit others for personal gain are also sometimes called “vampires,” and a “vamp” in movies of the 1920s and 1930s was a woman who seduced and exploited men. “To vamp” as a verb can mean to behave like a “vamp” or, in Black English in the US, “to attack or victimize.”

The “vamp” in “revamp” is of a far more pedestrian origin. A “vamp” is the portion of a shoe (or stocking) covering the front of the foot. The word dates to the 13th century in English, and is derived from the Old French “avantpie,” meaning “in front of the foot.”

For most of human history, boots and shoes have represented a substantial investment, and it was not uncommon to have the “vamp” of one’s shoes replaced periodically, giving the pair a new life. Thus “revamp,” meaning this process, first appeared in English back in the mid-19th century, and quickly took on the figurative meaning of “make new again, renovate, revise or remake” (“He had to keep on procuring magazine acceptances and then revamping the manuscripts to make them presentable,” Mark Twain, 1878).

Oddly enough, there is a figurative sense of the “shoe” kind of “vamp,” but rather than meaning “build for the first time,” it has always meant basically the same thing as “revamp” (renew, revise), so it has never been as popular as “revamp,” which has that handy “re” prefix signaling that something is being done again.

4 comments on this post.
  1. Dominick Bartosh:

    Nice one! If I could write like this I would be well chuffed. The more I see articles of such quality as this (which is rare), the more I think there might be a future for the Net. Keep it up, as it were.

  2. Hilary Avalon:

    Not only informative as to the origin of the word in question, but also a pop history/culture lesson AND entertainment! I want to find the answers to ALL my questions on THIS website.

  3. Pablo Fernández:

    Awesome! Invaluable in terms of learning the origin of the word. Say hello to 1994 in return hahaha!

  4. Dee:


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