The Origin of the Word 'Dongle': 7 Leading Theories

The etymology may involve poetry ... or immaturity ... or Steven Pinker.
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Shutterstock/Daniel Gale

Want to connect your laptop computer to a television? You'll need a dongle. Want to track your fitness habits -- or your dog's? Buy a dongle. Trying Chromecast? You'll also be dongling. Or Sky's Now TV? More dongling. Or Leap Motion? Dongle again.

Originally slang for a plug-in module to copy protected software, "dongle" now refers to "any small module that plugs in and sticks out of a socket." A USB drive, technically, could be called a dongle. So could a cellular air card. 

For the most part, though, dongles have cords that hang off your computer, awkardly. Dongles ... dangle.

But where did the weird word actually come from? That's a matter of debate -- and, spoiler, of enduring mystery. We don't know much, for sure, about the word that has been a source of so much frustration and controversy and, regardless, ubiquityBut that hasn't stopped people from guessing. Below, some of the leading theories about the etymology of the word "dongle," from the expected (yep, "dongle," teehee) to the less so. You're welcome.

An Arbitrary Coinage
One of the likeliest origin stories doesn't, actually, involve much of a story. Most dictionaries, the OED included, attribute the existence of "dongle" to random inspiration on the part of an unknown neologizer. ("Probably an arbitrary coinage," one reference sums it up, rather dismissively.) According to the book English Words: History and Structure, "dongle" is one of a class of words that seem to have sprung, Athena-like, from the minds of their first utterers in a process of "de novo creation." Fellow arbitrary words, per this assessment: ditzy, gizmo, grungy, blurb, hanky-panky, and -- a term whose existence can be considered "arbitrary" in only the most clinical sense -- flamdoodle.

A Phonesthetic Coinage
An extension of the "arbitrary coinage" theory has to do with phonesthesia, or sound symbolism. (Think onomatopoeia.) In his The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window Into Human Nature, Steven Pinker groups "dongle" as one of several terms that, likely by way of apt sound associations, "have appeared out of the blue in recent decades" -- among them bling, bonkers, bungee, dweeb, glitzy, gunk, and wonk.

A Corruption of the Word "Dangle"
There's also the opposite theory: that the word, rather than spontaneously springing into being, is a distortion of a word that already existed. According to P.B. Schneck in the IEEE paper "Persistent access control to prevent piracy of digital information": "The etymology of 'dongle' is unclear, however the word may be a corruption of 'dangle,' as the device is a small unit that typically plugs into the printer port of a PC."

Which seems likely, given the shape of most dongles ... though it doesn't directly explain the shift in vowels form "a" to "o."

An Appropriation From Poetry
What would explain the "o" is a less likely theory: that the word came, intact, from the literary world. The word "dongle" has been in use, most often in poetry, as an onomatopoeic term for the ringing of bells (as in "ding-dong"); there's a chance that this usage could have made its way to technology. To wit, this 1915 poem, "The Bells of Berlin":

The Bells of Berlin, how they hearten the Hun
(Oh dingle dong dangle ling dongle ding dee);
No matter what devil's own work has been done
They chime a loud chant of approval, each one,
Till the people feel sure of their place in the sun
(Oh dangle ding dongle dong dingle ding dee).

A Nerdy Hypothetical From a College Entrance Exam
There's also a chance -- a small one -- that the term could have come, intact, from the world of academia. According to a participant in a chat about the etymology of "dongle" (nb, caveat, etc.: just one participant, on an Internet forum), the word may have its roots in a logic question in a college entrance exam. Writes Ian Kemmish:

The first time I saw the word was in a Cambridge Entrance Examination past-paper (either in Maths or Natural Sciences). I was preparing for Cambridge in 1976, so the paper was probably '73, '74, or '75. This gives me good reason to suppose this was the first recorded usage of the word.

It was a "logic'' question. The question described a mythical computer with various controls (large red button, panel labelled `DO NOT REMOVE' etc.). It then described various combinations of control actions and their outcomes ('the babbocks break', 'the dongles droop' etc), and candidates had to deduce the truth table for individual control actions.

It is my theory that the current use of the word 'dongle' was coined by someone who had taken that paper (he'd be about the right age), and either consciously or subliminally remembered the word used to describe something on a computer that drooped....

A Cheeky Invention of an Ad Man (or Woman)
One of the earlier uses of the word "dongle" was in an ad for the information-security company Rainbow Technologies, in Byte Magazine, in 1992. The ad copy claimed that "dongle" was a derivation of its inventor, a Mr. "Don Gall." 

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Megan Garber is a staff writer at The Atlantic. She was formerly an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab, where she wrote about innovations in the media.

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