What is a vamp, and how do you re- one?

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Or maybe, "What is vamping, and how could the Trump administration redo it?"  Perhaps because I was very tired, that was my reaction to this story by Nia-Malika Henderson, "April Ryan asked the most important question of the Trump presidency", CNN 3/30/2017:

After a contentious — and some said condescending, sexist and racist — back-and-forth with White House reporter April Ryan at a press briefing Tuesday, Sean Spicer tried to get over the dust-up at the Wednesday briefing.

He called on the American Urban Radio Networks correspondent first, and the two exchanged forced pleasantries. Moving on, folks, was the clear message. Nothing to see here. We are professionals and combat happens.

But, lost amid that Tuesday exchange was the actual substance of Ryan's question. It was an important one, which goes to the heart of where President Donald Trump finds himself — the Gallup daily tracking poll has Trump at 35%, a new low.

Ryan asked: How does this administration try to revamp its image?

Of course I know what it means to revamp something:  "give new and improved form, structure, or appearance to".  But just what would the administration be re-ing if did revamp its image?

I knew about the musical vamp, a "repeating musical figure", and the stereotypical seductress vamp from "vampire". But in this case, those senses suggest bad jokes rather than a plausible etymology.

So I looked it up — and the OED tells me that vamp comes from

Old French avanpié (12th cent.; later French avantpied ), < avan(t) before + pié foot.

and means

That part of hose or stockings which covers the foot and ankle; also, a short stocking, a sock. Now dial.


The part of a boot or shoe covering the front of the foot; U.S., that part between the sole and the top in front of the ankle-seams.

So revamping is something that cobblers (used to) do, to replace the front part of a boot or shoe's uppers.

Anyhow, vamp in this sense is a word that I've somehow managed to avoid learning so far in my life, probably because I've never actually (known anyone who) had a boot or shoe revamped. (Though I'm old enough to have had a few soles and/or heels replaced…)



  1. Dick Margulis said,

    March 30, 2017 @ 5:16 pm

    I recall that that sense of vamp was part of my (b. 1920) mother's active vocabulary. Discussing her (invariably high-heeled) shoes, she would refer to a given style as having a high vamp or a low vamp. The Google ngram viewer shows that those expressions are still used in discussing women's shoes. The women I know don't wear high-heeled shoes, so it doesn't come up, but you might poll women who do.

  2. Rubrick said,

    March 30, 2017 @ 5:34 pm

    Huh. And now revamp means something fairly close to reboot, in something like poetic justice.

  3. Mark Meckes said,

    March 30, 2017 @ 7:03 pm

    I got some soles replaced just a couple weeks ago. But I don't believe I've ever known of anyone having a shoe revamped.

  4. mark dowson said,

    March 30, 2017 @ 7:16 pm

    OED is singularly unhelpful about the origin of 'boot' and 'reboot' as terms for starting/restarting a computer operating system. My intuition is that it derives from the notion of "lifting oneself by one's bootstraps", but even with a fairly long memory of computer history, I have no idea who started using it, or when it entered common computer jargon. Maybe someone with a longer memory than mine can throw light on the question.

    [(myl) The Jargon File explains:

    Historical note: this term derives from bootstrap loader, a short program that was read in from cards or paper tape, or toggled in from the front panel switches. This program was always very short (great efforts were expended on making it short in order to minimize the labor and chance of error involved in toggling it in), but was just smart enough to read in a slightly more complex program (usually from a card or paper tape reader), to which it handed control; this program in turn was smart enough to read the application or operating system from a magnetic tape drive or disk drive. Thus, in successive steps, the computer ‘pulled itself up by its bootstraps’ to a useful operating state. Nowadays the bootstrap is usually found in ROM or EPROM, and reads the first stage in from a fixed location on the disk, called the ‘boot block’. When this program gains control, it is powerful enough to load the actual OS and hand control over to it.


    Rather more on topic, if revamping the current administration's image is much the same as rebooting it, the "lifting by its own bootstraps" sense may be entirely apt.

  5. mark dowson said,

    March 30, 2017 @ 7:31 pm

    I understand that the term derives from bootstrap loaders, and how they work, but my interest was in when and by whom that particular (fairly apt) term was first used, and when it became commonly adopted.

  6. Mark Meckes said,

    March 30, 2017 @ 9:02 pm

    @Dick Margulis: My wife, though unaware of the history of the term revamp, knew what a vamp was. But she said this came not from her fondness for high-heeled shoes, but from her familiarity with ballet (shoe) terminology.

  7. RP said,

    March 31, 2017 @ 2:27 am

    @Mark Dowson,
    In addition to checking the OED under "boot", did you also check under "bootstrap"?
    There's a 1953 quote from the Journal of the Institute of Radio Engineers: "A technique sometimes called the ‘bootstrap technique’."

    There are quotes from 1962 and 1965 as well, suggesting that over the next ten years or so the term became well established, if it wasn't already. Of course, this doesn't tell us who invented the term.

    The OED entry for "bootstrap" mentions that it "has not yet been fully updated" (first published 1972) – an odd phrase which could mean anything (from not having been updated at all to having been radically altered but with other changes intended for the future; but I am guessing the most likely meaning is that the entry has undergone only cosmetic updates, such as an automated update to the layout or to the IPA transcription) – so perhaps more information will be added if it becomes available.

  8. C said,

    March 31, 2017 @ 3:05 am

    "Lost positives" are a thing. Googling the term finds many lists.

    My favourite is the P. G. Wodehouse quote from "The Code of the Woosters",
    “I could see that, if not actually disgruntled, he was far from being gruntled.”

  9. Keith said,

    March 31, 2017 @ 4:08 am

    I'm surprised that MYL was familiar with neither the term "revamp" meaning to renew, renovate, repair, nor the term "vamp" as a part of a shoe.

    [(myl) Quoting from the post: "Of course I know what it means to revamp something:  'give new and improved form, structure, or appearance to'". But I didn't know that word's connection with vamp-the-shoe-part. I was also ignorant of rands, kilties, aglets, and so on.]

    And on the subject of shoe repairs, I'm in my late forties, so not at all old, and I get shoes resoled or reheeled regularly, and occasionally I do my own repairs.

    The etymology deriving "vamp" from "avant-pié" reminds me of a term that might be familiar to players of D&D: "vambrace".

  10. Eleanor said,

    March 31, 2017 @ 4:14 am

    Another meaning of 'vamp' is 'to improvise an accompaniment' (the example given in OED is "1884 B'ham Daily Post 23 Feb. 3/5 Pianist and Vocalist; one who can vamp"). When I've heard this term in the musical sense it's come with a suggestion of showiness, ham, pizzazz, surely influenced by the other connotations of 'vamping' as tarting something up, disguising its flaws; a musical accompaniment which aims to make the centre-stage act seem more special than it really is. Appropriate for Trump's team, then.

    [(myl) The OED and other sources suggest that the musical sense of "vamp" actually comes from vamp-the-shoe-part, via

    vamp, v. 1.a. To provide or furnish with a (new) vamp; to mend or repair with or as with patches; to furbish up, renovate, or restore.

    2.a. transf. To make or produce by or as by patching; to adapt, compile, compose, put together (a book, composition, etc.) out of old materials; to serve up (something old) as new by addition or alteration. Also with up (freq. = trump v.3 5c).

    3.a. Music. To improvise or extemporize (an accompaniment, tune, etc.).

    There's a citation of vamp in this musical sense from 1789, whereas the transformation of vampire into vamp seems to date from 1911. I agree that there seems to be a resonance there, though.]

  11. Peter Erwin said,

    March 31, 2017 @ 6:36 am

    @Dick Margulis
    The Google ngram viewer shows that those expressions are still used in discussing women's shoes…

    "Vamp" is also used in descriptions of men's shoes, though discussions of the latter often make sure to define the term, an indication of its relative obscurity. E.g., "Formal lace-up shoes can be split into two sorts: Derbies and Oxfords. Both include a vamp – the front of the shoe attached to the quarters (the upper section that covers the sides and back) …" (from All You Need to Know About Dress Shoes).

  12. Rodger C said,

    March 31, 2017 @ 6:45 am

    a term that might be familiar to players of D&D: "vambrace"

    Or readers of Tolkien, from whom it was probably borrowed.

  13. Dick Margulis said,

    March 31, 2017 @ 6:49 am

    @Peter Irwin: I don't doubt that the term is used within the shoe trade for both men's and women's shoes, but that fact that it was glossed indicates it is not expected to be known by people outside the industry. What I checked, though, were specifically the expressions "high vamp" and "low vamp," as a way to focus on the contemporary use of vamp in reference to the shoe part, rather than its other uses. And I strongly suspect that those particular expressions only apply to women's shoes, although I can't prove that.

  14. Bloix said,

    March 31, 2017 @ 6:51 am

    I always had the vague idea that revamp had to do with the musical vamp. But I guess that doesn't make much sense.

  15. Bloix said,

    March 31, 2017 @ 6:53 am

    Oh, I see that got covered already.

  16. Bloix said,

    March 31, 2017 @ 6:56 am

    But the musical sense I know is to repeat a short phrase, say in order to kill time (while waiting for someone to come on stage) or to build tension (before the singer comes in).

  17. J.W. Brewer said,

    March 31, 2017 @ 6:58 am

    Both "revamp" and "reboot" (the latter in the "hollywood" sense) seem to have shifted semantically from something like "restore to prior or original condition" (after the shoe-part got worn out or the computer shut down and/or froze) to "change to something that is excitingly new and different from the prior or original condition." On the other hand, the musical "vamp" seems to have shifted in the other direction from "improvise something new" to "take that two-bar figure the whole band already knows and just get in a groove and keep repeating it pending further developments."

  18. J.W. Brewer said,

    March 31, 2017 @ 7:10 am

    One generally doesn't speak of high vamp and low vamp in relation to men's shoes because (in recent generations in North America and, afaik, Western Europe) they are almost invariably high-vamp and thus it doesn't usefully distinguish between styles. Pretty much the only low-vamp shoe on the market for men is the style often called "opera pumps" worn, if at all, exclusively in a black-tie context. The low vamp makes them look markedly feminine in style to the unsophisticated eye and it's probably no coincidence that "pump" is otherwise used exclusively to refer to women's shoes. I have a pair in my closet, but they are sufficiently out-there aesthetically that I would e.g. wear them to a black-tie wedding but not wear them to e.g. a black-tie benefit dinner for some comparatively stodgy cause that I was attending for business-networking reasons.

  19. Jen in Edinburgh said,

    March 31, 2017 @ 8:45 am

    The musical vamping I know of is taking the chord structure of something which is written/known as melody only, like a folk tune, and turning it into a proper 'left hand part' as you go along – which sounds like exactly what the musician in 1789 was doing! I've never heard of the stuck on repeat kind before.

  20. Jerry Friedman said,

    March 31, 2017 @ 9:15 am

    Jen: The "repeat" sense is the one I knew, especially in "vamp until ready", supposedly an instruction to pianists, extended something someone does to fill time till they can start what they're really doing. You could also search for "Hamlisch Chorus Line vamp".

    Keith: There's also the more transparent "vanguard", maybe too obvious to mention.

  21. Milan Davidović said,

    March 31, 2017 @ 10:26 am

    @Eleanor FWIW, also see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Comping

  22. J.W. Brewer said,

    March 31, 2017 @ 1:06 pm

    I think the older sense of vamping referenced by Jen in Edinburgh approximates what became known in 20th century jazz jargon as https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Comping. It's not clear to me whether musicians in that world would think of vamping as having a broad sense that could encompass comping or would in their own usage limit vamping to the narrower sense of what you do to fill time and hold the audience's attention until the singer-or-other-soloist is ready to go, at which point you switch over to comping.

  23. Graeme said,

    April 1, 2017 @ 1:31 am

    To revamp presumably you must devamp first.

    'Vamp' for top of foot certainly beats 'dorsum'

  24. Jonfrum said,

    April 1, 2017 @ 12:53 pm

    Vamping is not the same as comping. Vamping is repeating a short rhythmic/harmonic pattern – usually 4-8 bars of 4/4 time. A rhythm section can vamp under a soloist, or while waiting for a singer to come out onto the stage, talk to the audience, and then begin singing, etc. It can be as simple as vamping on a single chord, and it is assumed that everyone knows what to do, so it's a skill required of professional musicians. Or at least it was when there still were jobs for professional musicians. Now, the DJ must take care of it.

  25. Chinook Man said,

    April 2, 2017 @ 1:02 am

    @Keith, you made me realize the connotation of the name of a main character in Robertson Davies' Salterton Trilogy, Professor Vambrace!

  26. Quinn C said,

    April 3, 2017 @ 2:23 am

    I didn't see high or low vamp in the case of men's shoes, but "short vamp". Easy to find examples online.

  27. John Lawler said,

    April 3, 2017 @ 9:21 am

    Etymologically, then, revamp simply means "pull up your socks".

  28. BZ said,

    April 3, 2017 @ 10:05 am

    @J.W. Brewer,
    I think reboot still means to start over and bring back to known good condition, at least in politics. You are probably thinking of TV/Film reboots, but even there, the important part, starting over, is still the most salient. And after all, when you reboot a computer, it may well be to do something other than before. This was especially true in early days of PCs when there wasn't a hard drive, and you would often reboot to load an application directly from disk (or tape), rather than starting it from the operating system like today.

  29. ajay said,

    April 4, 2017 @ 9:30 am

    The etymology deriving "vamp" from "avant-pié" reminds me of a term that might be familiar to players of D&D: "vambrace".

    Which covers the forearm; the part covering the upper arm is, logically, the rerebrace.
    Armour terminology tends to be Anglicised French, and, unsurprisingly, most of it has fallen out of general use except for, I suppose, "breastplate", "gauntlet" and "visor". Even now that armour has come back into military use, and is becoming ever more sophisticated, it tends to use unimaginative words like "upper arm protection". Greaves, bevors, pauldrons, gorgets, tassets, sollerets, couters, faulds and poleyns are no longer familiar enough, apparently!

  30. ajay said,

    April 4, 2017 @ 9:32 am

    …which is especially disappointing given that mediaeval siege terminology is still very much in use. Any modern military engineer will know what a gabion and a fascine are, and will be familiar with their use, and any tanker should be able to point at a glacis.

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