Your office mate says the new device your company issued is a fob, and you say it’s a dongle. Before things come to fisticuffs in front of the water cooler, let’s investigate.

Today’s Question & Answer session comes to us courtesy of SuperUser—a subdivision of Stack Exchange, a community-driven grouping of Q&A web sites.

The Question

SuperUser reader Hogan has a simple but pressing question:

What is the difference between a fob and a dongle?

What is the difference? Or, as Humpty Dumpty said in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass, “When I use a word it means just what I choose it to mean–neither more nor less.”

The Answer

SuperUser contributor Bill Weaver digs right into the question:

I love this question. Fob and dongle. (For some reason those words remind me of Miller’s Crossing, though i’m probably thinking of fop and dangle.) A fob is, of course, that plastic thing on your keys that locks/unlocks your doors and more. A dongle is that thing that Autodesk makes you hang off the back of your PC to run Autocad or Maya.

As words, fob has been around for centuries while dongle is a more recently made-up word to describe a hardware key. Fob is interesting in that it meant a small pocket, while now we put fobs in pockets with our keys. You can also have a keyring with a fob and a dongle on it, the former to open your car and the latter to open Maya.

Definitions and Links

fob (from Online Etymology Dictionaryn. 1653, “small pocket for valuables,” probably related to Low Ger. fobke “pocket,” High Ger. fuppe “pocket.” Meaning “chain attached to a watch carried in the fob” is from 1885. v. “to cheat,” 1583, from obsolete noun fobbe “cheat, trickster” (1393), perhaps from O.Fr. forbe “cheat.” Alternative etymology holds that the word is perhaps related to Ger. foppen “to jeer at, make a fool of” (see fop); or from Ger. fuppen, einfuppen to pocket stealthily, which would connect it to fob (n.). To fob (someone) off is first recorded 1597.

fob off (from Yahoo Educationv. To dispose of (goods) by fraud or deception; palm off: fobbed off the zircon as a diamond.

dongle (from Wordnikn. noun A hardware device that serves as copy protection for certain software by rendering the software inoperable when the device is not plugged into a printer port.

In other words, both a fob and a dongle can interact with other hardware (be that hardware in your car or your computer), but only dongles are directly attached to the machine.

Have something to add to the explanation? Sound off in the the comments. Want to read more answers from other tech-savvy Stack Exchange users? Check out the full discussion thread here.


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Jason Fitzpatrick is the Senior Smart Home Editor at How-To Geek. He has over a decade of experience in publishing and has authored thousands of articles at How-To Geek, Review Geek, LifeSavvy, and Lifehacker. Jason served as Lifehacker's Weekend Editor before he joined How-To Geek.
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