New, no-fault default

'Remember when 'default' was a bad thing?" a friend of mine asked rhetorically a while back. She was commenting on how a word once associated with shortage and failure in the realms of basic household needs and then higher finance has found new life in the field of technology.

There, "default settings" represent the convenience of a computer that can be taken out of the box, plugged in, and put to work. "Default" started out meaning deficiency or failure. Its almost-twin, "fault" has a similar background. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) gives a citation from the great English printer William Caxton from a work of medieval hagiography: "They of the town within had so grete defaulte they ete theyr shoys and latchettis." They thus anticipated by several centuries Charlie Chaplin's memorable moment of treating his shoelaces as spaghetti in "The Gold Rush."

My own first serious encounter with "default" came when I was in the eighth grade. I was recruited for a local church-league basketball team that, for lack of players, had a dismal record. "We've been losing all our games by default," I was told by one of the girls leaning on me to sign up. Once I was on the team, they (we) starting losing all our games by, well, playing poorly. So much for Woody Allen's observation that 80 percent of success is just showing up.

"Default" in a specific financial sense is traced back to 1858. It was a sense I tuned into not long after the basketball episode, when the Penn Central Railroad collapsed. The Penn Central was the corporate successor to the New York Central, from which my grandfather had retired 20 years before after 42 years of service. Talk of "default" popped up frequently in another big financial crisis, that of New York City of the mid-1970s, which probably etched itself more deeply into public consciousness.

The use of "default" in the computing sense, the choice the computer will make for you if you take no action yourself, dates from 1966, as the OED defines it: "A preselected option adopted by a computer when no alternative is specified by the user or the programmer."

There you have it. A formerly bad thing - "failure to act" - is neutralized, or even transformed into a good thing: something provided in case someone fails to act, or has other things to do. The default option is something familiar or known to be feasible; but perhaps can be improved upon.

The usage has spread from computers to other contexts. Thus, a professor of economics describing the requirements for a final project in his course writes, "The default option for students unable to come up with a topic" is to write an individual paper on energy and the environment in China.

Serious geeks may disdain those who accept default settings on their computers and other devices. But the productivity revolution of the 1990s had a lot to do with "defaults" that helped people get a lot of work done without having to be computer whizzes. Aunt Tillie can publish her garden club newsletter using an array of typographical options beyond anything William Caxton could have dreamed of.

Does anyone remember that scribes once had to cut their own quill pens and mix their own ink?

This weekly column appears with links at http://weblogs.csmonitor.com/verbal_energy.

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