How Did the Word Dongle Ever Come Into Existence?
Chances are high that there is a dongle somewhere in your home or office.
In fact, there might even be one plugged into the computer you are using to read this article right now.
What is a dongle? Well, that’s an easy one to answer: A dongle is a catch-all term for self-contained devices you plug in to your computer—think USB drives, firewire, HDMI cables, et cetera.
But why do we call these things a dongle? Well, that’s where it gets a bit more complicated.
The first known recorded use of the word “dongle” appeared in a 1981 issue of New Scientist. Since then, it’s been widely used among both techies and average computer users—in fact, the word was even once at the center of a Silicon Valley scandal.
But while many theories exist, there’s no exact consensus as to where the word “dongle” came from. That said, here are some of the most popular stories about dongle etymology.
Three different theories about the origins of the word “dongle” all rely on common sense and phonetics to explain the word.
For starters, some believe that “dongle” is a sort of sound symbolism.
If it’s been a while since you took a high school English class, sound symbolism is when a word itself carries some connection to the thing or action it is describing. For example, the word “sizzle” makes the same izzz sound as a sizzling skillet of fajitas, and when you gurgle water, it sounds like you might be saying “gurgle.”
While most dongles don’t necessarily make a lot of noise, the way they hang off the sides of your computer suggests a sort of frivolity. And the word “dongle” is about as frivolous as you can get in terms of gadget names.
There’s another straightforward phonetic theory about dongle’s origins: It’s a variation on the word “dangle.” That would make sense, considering dongles like USB drives and fcc id prdrx0a do dangle off of computers and smartphones.
A branch off of the “dangle” theory is a bit more not-safe-for-work, though probable. This theory posits that “dongle” is an amalgamation of “dong” and “dangle,” because of how some dongles can resemble penises.
Finally, we have a theory that’s actually a bit of a non-theory, and can be found in many dictionary definitions of the word. This theory asserts that the word “dongle” was simply made up by a person for unknown, probably random, reasons, and the usage caught on.
Dongle Origin Stories
In addition to theories that have to do with the structure of the word itself, there are also several dynamic dongle origin stories that are fun to consider.
One of these theories can be traced back to an internet chat board dedicated to tracing the word’s origin. One user posted that he had first encountered the word “dongle” on a college entrance exam in the 1970s—before the first known usage in the 1980s.
The exam question related to technology, but used “dongle” as an arbitrary, hypothetical tool. Still, the poster of this theory thinks it’s possible that someone—or many people—who took that exam might have inadvertently remembered the word and used it conversation, and it took off from there.
It might seem implausible that a word could spread so widely this way. But all it would take is one technology thought leader to make the word spread throughout the tech world, so it’s certainly possible that “dongle” started this way.
Another common idea about the word “dongle” can easily be proven false, but it persists nonetheless.
This theory comes from a 1992 magazine advertisement from a company called Rainbow Technologies. The ad claims that the word “dongle’ is named after a fictional inventor named Don Gall.
Both Rainbow Technologies executives and the creatives responsible for the ad are clear that Don Gall is not a real person, and the ad was meant to be nothing more than entertaining. However, because this advertisement was the first explanation of the word “dongle” that many people came across, the myth of Don Gall persists to this day.
Why “Dongle” Shows How Language Works
It might seem strange that many theories exist about how “dongle” came into existence, and that we can’t know for sure which one is true—or if several of them might be true at once.
But the truth is, this actually makes “dongle” similar to many words in the English language, and in languages all over the world. There isn’t one person or group that decides which words mean what—rather, language is a constantly evolving process, and its roots can’t always be neatly tracked.
The different theories of where “dongle” came from actually correlate with the different English word-origin models used by linguists. For example, there is a theory about “dongle” that is essentially “novel creation,” or the idea that some words are created whole-cloth.
Another common word-origin paradigm is folk etymology, in which urban legends about a word’s existence supersede more straightforward explanations. Doesn’t that remind of Don Gall and the Rainbow Technologies ad?
Linguists use “blending,” meanwhile, to acknowledge that many words are the combination of two or more different words—like “dongle” being a cross between “dong” and “dangle,” for example.
Another popular term coined by linguists is “semantic broadening.” This phrase is used to describe the way in which a word’s definition can broaden over time to include more and more things.
While “dongle” started out referring only to USB drives and other self-contained devices, the word can now apply to virtually anything you plug into your computer or smartphone. In fact, when Apple converted to wireless headphone technology in iPhones, people started calling the lightning converter cord required for traditional headphone use “dongles.”
Language Works In Unexpected Ways
“Dongle” might seem like a silly word, and the origin theories, in turn, can be a bit humorous to consider.
But beyond the frivolity, “dongle” is a modern example of a phenomenon that’s been in existence since humans first started forming languages. And as technology changes and humans continue to invent language, the usage of “dongle” will likely continue to evolve.
If you want to learn more about the unexpected ways language works, check out more articles on our blog.
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