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Fault and default sound rather similar to me as a German, but are they really related?

I am interested in default as used in default value for some configurable setting in computer programs.

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It was always fun training Realtors in software: the word 'default' made their hair stand on end. "No, it's a Good Thing." – no comprende Feb 16 at 19:55
up vote 6 down vote accepted


late 13c., faute,
"deficiency," from O.Fr. faute (12c.)
"opening, gap; failure, flaw, blemish; lack, deficiency," from V.L. *fallita "a shortcoming, falling," noun use of fem. pp., from L. falsus
"deceptive, feigned, spurious," pp. of fallere "deceive, disappoint" (see false).

The -l- was restored 16c., probably in imitation of Latin, but was not pronounced till 18c.

Sense of "physical defect" is from early 14c.;
that of "moral culpability" is first recorded late 14c.
Geological sense is from 1796.
The use in tennis (c.1600) is closer to the etymological sense.


early 13c., "offense, crime, sin," later (late 13c.) "failure, failure to act," from O.Fr. defaute (12c.)
"fault, defect, failure, culpability, lack, privation," from V.L. *defallita "a deficiency or failure," pp. of *defallere, from L. de- "away" (see de-) + fallere
"to deceive, to cheat; to put wrong, to lead astray, cause to be mistaken; to escape notice of, be concealed from" (see fail).
The financial sense is first recorded 1858; the computing sense is from 1966.

Wikipedia says

The Oxford English Dictionary dates this usage to the mid-1960s, as a variant of the older meaning of "failure in performance".

[bold is mine]

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The bit that is missing is the derivation of the computer sense. I believe it arises from the phrase "in default of" (eg "in default of payment"), interpreting that as simply "if lacking" rather than "if wrong". But I haven't any references for that. – Colin Fine Jun 28 '11 at 13:16
@Colin Thanks for the heads-up, I hadn't noticed the edit to the question – mplungjan Jun 28 '11 at 13:26

Yes, they are related.

According to Etymonline, fault traces its ancestry back through the Old French faute to the Latin fallere, "to deceive". Similarly default traces back through the Old French defaute to the Latin defallere, which is just de- ("away from" or "out of") + fallere.

"Default" in the computing sense straightforwardly derives as the value chosen "by default", or "in default of" an explicit value. In both of those phrases "default" is used to mean a lack or omission, part of its ordinary definition.

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