The OED — bless its darkest-blue-covered heart — is a trifle iffy about the word:
Etymology: Of uncertain origin.
Then we are given clues:
Not improbably the word was originally military slang, either from obsolete Dutch schampen ‘to escape or flie, or to be gone’ (Hexham 1660), which is < Old French escamper to decamp, or from Italian scampare to decamp, run away: see A less likely, though possible, supposition is that it represents a Middle English derivative of the Old French word, preserved in some non-literary dialect.
I’m happy with the military bit, the “discamping”, particularly so because Smollett employs it in a particular context:
O Molly! the sarvants at Bath are devils in garnet. They lite the candle at both ends—Here’s nothing but ginketting, and wasting, and thieving and tricking, and trigging; and then they are never content—They won’t suffer the ‘squire and mistress to stay any longer; because they have been already above three weeks in the house; and they look for a couple of ginneys a-piece at our going away; and this is a parquisite they expect every month in the season; being as how no family has a right to stay longer than four weeks in the same lodgings; and so the cuck swears she will pin the dish-clout to mistress’s tail; and the house-maid vows, she’ll put cowitch in master’s bed, if so be he don’t discamp without furder ado—I don’t blame them for making the most of their market, in the way of vails and parquisites; and I defy the devil to say I am a tail-carrier, or ever brought a poor sarvant into trouble.
Consider: armies are usually bodies (indeed: many about permanently to be) of young men. Men, that is, without women. Which missing ingredient has traditionally been supplied, legitimately or mendaciously by … camp-followers.
On the whole, the army structure disapproves of the individual soldier betaking himself off in search of a pressing need. Which may therefore require an unauthorised excursion out of camp. Or, in (very-)late Latin, that would be something like ex-campare (which certainly doesn’t appear in my Lewis and Short, with its equally darkest-blue-covered heart) and which, in French, becomes that escamper to decamp.
Continuing in the same theme, we arrive at—
The OED has just one citation from before the First World War for:
Ostentatious, exaggerated, affected, theatrical; effeminate or homosexual; pertaining to or characteristic of homosexuals.
The source for that is:
James Redding Ware, Passing English of the Victorian era: a dictionary of heterodox English, slang, and phrase; 1909.
Ware, by the way, deserves recognition for creating (under the pen-name of ” Andrew Forrester”) “Miss Gladden”, one of the earliest female detectives in fiction.
Sonntag, bloody Sonntag
Back in 1964, the young Susan Sonntag wrote an essay, Notes on “Camp”, and tried to provide an all-embracing description:
Random examples of items which are part of the canon of Camp:
The Brown Derby restaurant on Sunset Boulevard in LA
The Enquirer, headlines and stories
Aubrey Beardsley drawings
Visconti’s direction of Salome and ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore
certain turn-of-the-century picture postcards
Schoedsack’s King Kong
the Cuban pop singer La Lupe
Lynn Ward’s novel in woodcuts, God’s Man
the old Flash Gordon comics
women’s clothes of the twenties (feather boas, fringed and beaded dresses, etc.)
the novels of Ronald Firbank and Ivy Compton-Burnett
stag movies seen without lust
Err … yes. And no, because many of those mean very little to me.
Still, the essay is worth the study, if only because it strings together a quick history of the pretentious:
The late 17th and early 18th century is the great period of Camp: Pope, Congreve, Walpole, etc, but not Swift; les précieux in France; the rococo churches of Munich; Pergolesi. Somewhat later: much of Mozart.
I can take that, or leave it, but feel she is nearer the bone with this:
This [“the thing as pure artifice”] comes out clearly in the vulgar use of the word Camp as a verb, “to camp,” something that people do. To camp is a mode of seduction — one which employs flamboyant mannerisms susceptible of a double interpretation; gestures full of duplicity, with a witty meaning for cognoscenti and another, more impersonal, for outsiders. Equally and by extension, when the word becomes a noun, when a person or a thing is “a camp,” a duplicity is involved. Behind the “straight” public sense in which something can be taken, one has found a private zany experience of the thing.
“To camp is a mode of seduction”
Which puts us into the seduction of advertising, and all — scamper, camp, the meretricious and the mendacious — became clear: —
There you have a complete definition: the gaudiness, showmanship, excess, lack of taste: not to omit a prime exponent, Richard Branson.