Back in 2011, I wrote a headline for The New York Observer: "Jack Dorsey's Dongle Growing in Popularity." The story was about the success of the Twitter co-founder’s new startup, Square, which sells an accessory, or dongle, that plugs into an iPhone or iPad, enabling it to process credit card transactions. The joke is that the word "dongle" sounds like a word for dick. Get it? Dongle. Growing. Twitter co-founder Biz Stone tweeted it to tease Dorsey.
This is all to illustrate that the double entendre was mostly fun, with some isolated kerfuffles, until earlier this year. Apple rolled out new iPhones and Macbooks that were missing the usual ports, meaning a ton of people had to start using dongles on a daily basis.
Having to use a dongle regularly is annoying; having to say the word is worse. "Do you have a dongle?" “I need a dongle.” “I left my dongle at the office.” “You’ve just been forced to think about the word ‘dongle,’” Victor Luckerson wrote for The Ringer.
It’s also given rise to obnoxious derivative phrases like "dongle life" (the weighted-down experience of someone who has to walk around with a bag of dongles), “dongle up” (purchasing dongles), and “dongle dangler” (a Kickstarter project for a dongle keychain attachment).
With this in mind, I set out to find an appropriate but less awkward-sounding word.
Where did "dongle" come from?
The Oxford English Dictionary added dongle in 1982, after the tech press started using it. Originally it referred to things you plugged into your machine to make certain types of software work. Gradually, it evolved to encompass almost anything that plugs into a port on a computer or phone, from adapters to SD card readers.
The word is generally thought to have arisen out of slang, with no discrete origin. There is a myth that it was named after a programmer named Don Gall, but this was concocted by the information security company Rainbow Technologies as part of a marketing campaign.
My personal favorite theory traces the word to a college entrance exam in the early '70s. "The question described a mythical computer with various controls," recalled Ian Kemmel on a mailing list. “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."
The word dongle has negative associations, said Cynthia Whissell, a psycholinguist at Laurentian University who studies the emotional meaning of sounds.
The "ao" vowel sound is nasalized, meaning it just doesn’t feel “sharp and crisp,” she said. “The -n and the -ng sounds are pretty active sounds. The -d itself is more or less negative. The -l is a positive sound, but we don’t express the l very strongly.” And, she acknowledged, it sounds like dong, which is inescapable. “It’s got a whole family of associations with it.”
The -ng ending is common in words for penis, author and Harvard professor Steven Pinker told me in an email, as are* *the *-nk *and -k endings, which are articulated in the same part of the mouth. "People are probably squeamish about the word dongle because it reminds them of slang words for ‘penis,’" he said, citing dong, schlong, and ding-a-ling.
“Once a word goes viral, it’s futile to try to think of a replacement — people go with the precedent.”
The similarity to the word "dangle" evokes both ding-a-lings and cables hanging out of a machine, he said, and the suffix -le indicates something little. Put it all together and we have a small, penis-like, in-plugging computer apparatus.
I knew I wanted to get away from the penis association, but I didn’t necessarily want a nice-sounding word to replace dongle. "Sometimes if you want to describe something that’s annoying, you might choose a word that has more negative implications," Whissell said, meaning we should stick in some so-called plosive consonants like p-, d-, t-, and g-, which are more obnoxious and indicate an active, “wake up and get going” message.
At this point, I asked The Outline team to come up with a list of cool names. I told them to stick to short words with plosive sounds, consider adding an -le on the end, and try to evoke something electronic and annoying. They came up with around two dozen names.
I also reached out to A Hundred Monkeys, an agency based in Berkeley that specializes in naming. They typically name specific products or brands, but they’ve also worked on labeling ideas ("conditioned hypereating" was one of theirs). Creative director Eli Altman surprised me by saying the word dongle was pretty good.
"While dongle catches a lot of flak for being obliquely sexual or just awkward to say, it is very memorable," he said. “A name like that actually stands out very quickly. Compared to just looking at all of the names out there, at least it passes that basic test.”
He agreed to come up with a list of names for us with the caveat that they were generated faster than would normally take for a real client, and that they haven’t been fully vetted for trademarks and things like that.
I ran the names by some experts, including David Peterson, the Game of Thrones language creator; Kelly Meyers, associate director of creative strategy at Outline partner agency Code and Theory; and three teens.
We whittled it down to three finalists:
Plugadoo (cute nonsense word)
Throughport (literal, kinda futuristic-sounding)
Schiller (after the Apple executive who said the elimination of ports was an act of courage)
Pinker had tried to warn me about the difficulty of replacing dongle. "Once a word goes viral, it’s futile to try to think of a replacement — people go with the precedent," he said.
Just how established is the word dongle? According to Google’s Ngram viewer, which tracks the appearances of words in books, the word has been on a steep increase since 1980. Amazon is happy to label things as dongles, although Apple itself uses "cable" or “adapter,” never dongle. The Apple news prompted a wave of dongle memes, but the term did not see any uptick in Google Trends, which tracks search data.
The Outline spoke to teens about tech terminology.
"I never hear anyone say that word," said Lo Phillips, an 18-year-old college student who works at his school’s IT department and is Outline staffer Owen Phillips’s younger brother.
"D-o-n-g-l-e?" asked Isabella Jarosz, 17, a high school student and cousin to Outline staffer John Lagomarsino. “I haven’t heard that word before.”
"I think it’s a really fun word," said Taylor Koebler, a 17-year-old high schooler in Maryland who just got one of the new dongle-mandatory iPhone 7s. “I’ve been using it ever since I got my new phone.” She told me her friends were also using the word because of Apple.
This was the moment that I began to doubt the feasibility of replacing the word. The word dongle has such a hold that even Apple, arguably the best-marketed electronics company in the world, can’t shake it.
As a final test, we took the debate public. In a Twitter poll of 574 respondents, throughport won 13 percent of the vote, Schiller won 18 percent of the vote, plugadoo won 19 percent of the vote, and 50 percent voted to keep dongle.
Dongles have a ridiculous name and a terrible reputation. What should we call them instead?— The Outline (@outline) December 6, 2016
You’re welcome, America. You have the word you deserve. If you want to use something else, maybe just call the thing by its name. Or call it a Schiller. I still think that’s funny.