In a discussion at another question, rajah9 mentioned that default is used to mean to fail to repay a loan, but that in the computer world we now use it to mean a value used when no value has been explicitly set.

Somewhat closer to the IT meaning, default can also mean to lose a game or a lawsuit by failing to show up, as in lose the baseball game by default. At least, I can see a similarity between this is what you get if you don't say what you want and this is what you get if you don't show up.

Is there any context outside of IT field where default is used to mean what you get if you didn't say what you want?

Particularly, is there such a usage before IT people started using the word in this sense?

  • Does the etymonline entry for default help here? The senses "don't show up" and "don't give a value" do indeed seem identical in the sense of "failure/lack/deficiency".
    – Andrew Leach
    Dec 14, 2012 at 14:48
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    @AndrewLeach That entry tells only half the story. In IT parlance, default is the value assumed by something in the absence of a definition or of assignment of value. This sense is exclusive to IT I believe.
    – Kris
    Dec 14, 2012 at 14:56
  • I was going to answer this; until I got to the "outside of IT world" part ...
    – Frantisek
    Dec 14, 2012 at 14:56
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    @AndrewLeach There is a fundamental difference. By the usage in computer field, a default judgment would be that which is to be deemed to have been delivered in the absence of any judgment having been delivered -- a dangerous interpretation :) -- so let's not draw implications too far.
    – Kris
    Dec 14, 2012 at 15:11
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    @kris Exactly. I can see a connection between "you lose because you didn't show up" and "you get this value because you didn't choose". But they're clearly not the same idea. It's not like the court says, "In a divorce case we assume that we will rule against the husband unless he can convince us otherwise". At least, that's not how it's supposed to work. And it's not like in a ball game they say, "We assume that Team A will win until some other team comes along and actually beats them". Either team could lost by default.
    – Jay
    Dec 17, 2012 at 15:50

2 Answers 2


The complete list of meanings in various contexts, fields and subjects is given in TheFreeDictionary online.

The list mentions the particular sense exclusively in Electronics & Computer Science:

4. a. Computer Science A particular setting or value for a variable that is assigned automatically by an operating system and remains in effect unless canceled or overridden by the operator: changed the default for the font in the word processing program.(quoting The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition).


6 (Electronics & Computer Science / Computer Science (also)) Computing
a. the preset selection of an option offered by a system, which will always be followed except when explicitly altered
b. (as modifier) default setting
(quoting from the Collins English Dictionary – Complete and Unabridged ©)

That said, it seems the closest one can come to compare the IT parlance and general English usage could be:

3 The failure of one or more competitors or teams to participate in a contest: won the championship by default. [emphasis mine] (AmerHeritageDict)

  • 1
    I agree that the AHD definition comes closest to the no-choice choice. I have also heard it used after a competition, for instance when it is discovered that a player was ineligible.
    – rajah9
    Dec 14, 2012 at 15:52
  • @rajah9 'used after a competition' -- you are right in the observation. I had even thought of mentioning that in the answer -- it's not exactly the same sense of default as in IT usage.
    – Kris
    Dec 15, 2012 at 14:12

As can be seen from this chart, default option/choice have certainly become far more common usages since the computer context became widespread...

enter image description here

But even a single earlier example (such as this from 1942)...

The Act makes a direct rollover the default option for involuntary distributions that exceed $1,000

...should be enough to show that such usages do in fact predate the computer context.

  • 1
    Thank you for doing this research. The 1942 citation seem suspect. It says later in that paragraph, "The distribution must be rolled over automatically to a designated IRA..." While Google says this US tax reporter tome was from 1942, the IRA was not enacted until 1974, with the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA). Either the US Tax Reporter was amazingly prescient, or Google is reporting the wrong year.
    – rajah9
    Dec 14, 2012 at 18:13
  • Put me in the category of "anyone who's not convinced." The 1923 citation is from the 76th Annual Meeting of the American Law Institute (1999). (Maybe this should be moved to Meta and given similar warnings to Google nGrams usage.)
    – rajah9
    Dec 14, 2012 at 18:18
  • @rajah9: You're right about that second one, so I'll take it out. It makes no difference to the substance of my answer - which as I said, requires just a single example to prove the usage wasn't somehow "invented" solely by or for the computer context. Dec 14, 2012 at 18:37
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    A single example pre-computer days would be interesting, but I didn't see one.
    – Jay
    Dec 17, 2012 at 16:04
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    @Jay: How about this one from 1957, which describes all available coverages, including a default option coverage plan. Dec 17, 2012 at 16:14

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