Most of us know vaudeville as the name of a bygone era of variety theater from before WWII. The word, unsurprisingly given its form, comes from French. Originally, it was chanson du Vau de Vire, or song of the valley of the Vire, a river in Normandy. The phrase was first applied to the works of Olivier Basselin, a 15th century poet and songwriter famed for his drinking songs. The phrase was shortened to vau de vire, vau de ville, and eventually become vaudeville.
The original sense of the term was a light, popular song. English use dates to at least 1739 when it appears in a letter by Horace Walpole:
I will send you one of the vaudevilles or ballads which they sing at the comedy after their petites pièces.
Use to refer to variety theater in general, skits and amusements interspersed with such songs, dates to 1827. From Thomas Dibden’s Reminiscences:
I also had the honour...of being selected by her Royal Highness the Princess Elizabeth to write a sort of vaudeville farce.
(Source: Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition)
Copyright 1997-2014, by David Wilton