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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years


(1990’s | academese | “dismantle,” “anatomize”)

Still a bit of a scare word in the 1980’s among those who fulminated against dirty lefties in academe who subverted good old-fashioned morality with their filthy relativism, this word has lost its fangs and is now commonly used, apparently without much thought for its associations with twentieth-century French philosophy. In English departments, the word meant something like turn a text (which need not be composed of words, you understand) against itself, find its inconsistencies and oddities and unravel it, prove that it isn’t really saying what it’s obviously saying. Not as earthshaking as some of its practitioners imagined, but kind of fun. In everyday language, it differs from “destruction” by being less general; the term strongly implies a painstaking taking apart, piece by piece. Not a wrecking ball, but a careful dissection. You also see “deconstruction” for the act of dismantling, but not as often, it seems to me. The noun may still carry a touch of the pointy-head.

Almost always used with abstract objects, but sometimes goes with relatively concrete abstractions like a sports team. Often done with an eye to analyzing the object, or maybe just finding its weak points. Common early among arts writers, reliable conduits for academese as well as therapese. Now evolving (if not evolved) into a synonym for “break down” or “anatomize,” so that you can deconstruct something without actually destroying it.


(1990’s | computerese | “manufacturer’s settings,” “ground state,” “how we do things around here”)

When you look at what this word meant fifty years ago, it’s a little frightening: negligence, bankruptcy, failure to meet a legal obligation — a lot of things that can get you in a lot of trouble. Oh, it still means all those things. But now it has another common meaning, something like “the normal or undisturbed state of affairs.” The related adjective means something like “routine” or “basic.” As a verb, the word hasn’t spread beyond computerese, but there’s no reason it couldn’t; imagine a sentence like “In his latest film, the director defaults to all his old tricks in the absence of any fresh ideas,” or “The dishwasher defaults to heated dry every time you hit the start button.”

In this sense, there’s no doubt the term comes out of computerese, where it means a setting or property (e.g., in a software application or an operating system) that persists until a user changes it. (There are several good definitions of the term on-line; my favorite is here.) All those pre-sets that you don’t notice until you object to one are defaults — like pre-programmed toaster settings. The key notion here is “persists until changed,” which is not far from our more general use today. “Default” seems to have had the same meaning in computerese nearly as long as people have been writing about computers. But why? One possibility comes from a sentence like “In default of user changes, the software interface will look like this.” If a user fails to make changes, this is what he or she gets. But I think two other expressions are nearer ancestors. One is legalese: “default judgment,” meaning the resolution of a lawsuit in which the defendant fails to participate. If you don’t show up or do anything, you may have a default judgment entered against you. This use is reminiscent of the more ordinary phrase, “by default.” I remember hearing this phrase most often in athletic contexts, although it was not restricted to them. If one team just didn’t make the trip, or didn’t have enough players, then they forfeited the game, and the other team won by default, because someone had to win and there wasn’t anyone else there. In other words, if no one does anything, there’s still a winner. And if you don’t fuss with your software, there’s still a prevailing setting that allows it to function.

The word remains hard to pin down. A lot of times it could be replaced by “fallback,” which isn’t quite the same thing but is close enough. “Our default position” means “the course of action we follow when there’s no pressure to change it,” so sometimes the word skates close to “status quo.” But in each case, there’s an perceptible connection to that sense of “by default” — what we automatically revert to when there’s no reason to do it a different way.


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