Lexicon Valley

Why Do We Call a Dongle a Dongle?

Behold the Vodafone LTE high-speed USB dongle.

Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images

We are all adults, so I am sure nobody is already giggling at the headline to this post. Right? Oh, come on. Control yourself! Dongle is a useful word with a fascinating history, and … OK, OK. I’ll wait.

A Martian anthropologist would wonder what is so funny about “a small piece of hardware that attaches to a computer, TV, or other electronic device in order to enable additional functions.” First linked exclusively to software protection, now dongledom includes any “module that plugs in and sticks out of a socket.” Here is a dongle in a recent Google press release, describing a doohickey that converts a dumb TV into a smart one. On a technology blog, to denote a “port replicator” providing “HDMI, USB, and an additional USB type-C connector in a single adaptor.” In the illustrious archives of Slate, referring to Google’s Chromecast. (It’s “a little device you might call a dongle if your mother didn’t teach you manners,” says Farhad Manjoo.) Air cards, memory sticks, Bluetooth enablers—the doors of dongle open for them all.

But maybe your first exposure to dongle was not so neutral, or inclusive. In March of 2013, the tech developer and feminist advocate Adria Richards overheard two men joking about “big dongles” at a programming conference. She was sitting in front of them in the audience, and she fired off a tweet condemning them for making the environment uncomfortable for women. In the kerfuffle that ensued, one of the men was escorted from the convention and later fired; Richards weathered blasts of online abuse, became a target for the hacker-collective Anonymous, and lost her job (the rationale being that she should not have publicly shamed the men without confronting them first); and most of the tech world bemoaned a silly crack that spiraled out of control.

Richards was right that the word does sound somewhat lewd. It sounds like a dong that dangles from your laptop. But its smuttiness is not aggressive but comedic, even pathetic. Marrying the raunch of a dick synonym with the ungainliness of a particular type of motion—hanging down, flapping in the breeze—it evokes something goofy, helpless, superfluous, embarrassing. It is a penis-suggestive term that is not penis-friendly, and I’m actually surprised that it caught on in Silicon Valley.

But then, such an unusually evocative aural nugget seems destined to lodge somewhere. Say it: dongle. (Not out loud, if you’re at work—you might get yanked into HR for sexual harassment training. Say it in your mind’s ear.) One could devote a Tumblr to all the things a dongle is not, but could be: a weird-shaped chip, half Dorito and half Bugle; an apprentice goblin; an inappropriate snuggle with your college don. It insinuates chime-y words like ring, ding, or jingle, but its darker middle vowel turns it melancholy (or, if Hamlet’s humor is too lofty, sad-sack—ask not for whom the bell dongles; it dongles for Eeyore). In fact, Google Ngram suggests that, until the 1980s, dongle mostly served to onomatopoetically recreate the sound of bells. But not just any bells—bad ones. A 1915 poem published in Punch of London, “The Bells of Berlin,” used dongle to capture the discordant clang of Germany’s celebrations after a military victory:

The Bells of Berlin, how they hearten the Hun
(Oh, dingle dong dangle ding dongle ding dee;)
No matter what devil’s own work has been done…

(Oh, dangle ding dongle dong dingle ding dee.)

According to the OED, dongle first appeared in reference to computer security systems some time between 1980 and 1982. Its etymology? “Arbitrary.” Other dictionaries concur: Dongle sprang to life ex nihilo, like ditzy or grungy, or out of subconscious phonesthetic associations, like bling, dweeb, glitzy, or wonk. Presumably, runs this theory, someone was seeking a term for a doodad that dangled, dong-like, from a device—and dug up dongle.

The Atlantic’s Megan Garber has an enlightening rundown of alternative origin myths—including a now-debunked claim that “ ‘dongle’ was a derivation of its inventor, a Mr. ‘Don Gall’ ”—but, wherever it came from, the word woos and jangles in equal measure. “It gives me an uncomfortable feeling,” confessed one colleague in our interoffice chat client. “I do not like dongle.” “I love dongle,” countered a second co-worker. “It is funny. I thought everyone loved dongle.”

“It seems foolish for the tech world to embrace a word that can lead to sexual harassment accusations,” said a third co-worker.

“It makes us laugh. It brings joy into our lives,” said the second co-worker.

I think there’s value in both the discomfort and the joy. Dongle, with its prism of aural echoes, seems uniquely expressive: an agent of mischief, a wordplay muse. It fits the technology it denotes (important for any name) but also transforms it—from computer part to body part, at once hilarious and unnerving. Where did it come from? We may never know. Like a distant bell, it won’t tell—its dirty ditties dangle. Ding, dong, all day long. So ends the song of dongle.