What Is the Meaning of the Word “Default”?

The Computer Corner

By Charles Miller

Aclient asked me a question the other day, and much to my embarrassment the answer almost eluded me. The question was, “What is the meaning of the word ‘default’?” Sometimes I have difficulty explaining things that are so common and familiar to me that I assume everyone else is equally familiar.

There is no mystery as to why confusion could exist as to the meaning of this word. If your home library happens to include a 50-year-old dictionary of the English language, the definition you are likely to find is that “default” means “failure in performance,” and that is what the word meant back then. Starting a few decades ago though, computer engineers starting using the word “default” to describe a value or a setting that was automatically chosen. It might have been less confusing if computer technicians had deigned to choose a different word with a more synonymous established meaning, such as “preset.” Apple Computer had the right idea in 1982 when they instructed their programmers, “Please do not ever use the word ‘default’ in a program designed for humans. Default is something the mortgage went into right before the evil banker stole the Widow Parson’s house.” Unfortunately, nobody listened and today we still use the word “default.”

One of the definitions for “default” found online reads: “A default, in computer science, refers to a setting or a value automatically assigned to a software application, computer program, or device, outside of user intervention.” In other words, “default” almost always comes into effect where there are several possible choices and one of those options has already been chosen for you.

When using your computer there are many places where default comes into play. You have a choice of web browsers you may use to surf the web. Chrome, Firefox, Internet Explorer, and Safari are the popular web browsers, and you are allowed to have and use more than one on your computer or tablet, but only one can be the default, or preferred, browser.

Much to the irritation of some gringos, when they surf the web some websites will identify their IP address, determine it is in Mexico, and set the default language of the website to Spanish. Many websites that do this have an icon you may click to change the language to English. Some websites go a step further and permit you to set the default language for that website to English and save that setting, so that the next time you visit the page, that default language will be used.

When you compose a new email, as you begin typing you will use the default font. Usually that is going to be Times New Roman 12 point, and a lot of email programs offer the option to change the font to another typeface, change the size, and change the color. Oftentimes you will discover you can set a default font. If you always want to use a script typeface (of 14 points, bright blue color), there may be a way you could set that as your default font preference.

So I guess “default” could be described thus: Where you have several possible options, default is what you get unless you specifically choose one of the other options.

Charles Miller is a freelance computer consultant, a frequent visitor to San Miguel since 1981 and now practically a full-time resident. He may be contacted at 415 101-8528 or email FAQ8 (at) SMAguru.com.


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