Sunday, June 11, 2006


Orc (sometimes spelled Ork) comes ultimately from the Latin word Orcus, a title of the god Pluto, the king of the underworld. The word "Orcus" was later used to refer to the underworld itself. The form orc was used by J. R. R. Tolkien in his fictional stories of Middle-earth as the name of a race of creatures that are often used by evil forces as soldiers.

Etymology of the word "orc"

The modern use of the English word "orc" to denote a fantasy race of evil, humanoid creatures begins with J.R.R. Tolkien.

Tolkien's earliest elvish dictionaries include the entry "Ork (orq-) monster, ogre, demon" together with "orqindi ogresse." Tolkien sometimes used the plural form orqui in his early texts.

Tolkien sometimes, particularly in The Hobbit, used the word "goblin" instead of "orc" to describe the same type of creature.[1] Later in his life he expressed an intention to change the spelling of "orc" to "ork" in The Silmarillion [2] but the only place where that spelling surfaced in his lifetime was in the published version of The Adventures of Tom Bombadil, in the poem Bombadil Goes Boating ("I'll call the orks on you: that'll send you running!"). In the posthumously published Silmarillion the spelling "orcs" was retained.

Old English influence

Tolkien's own statements about the real-world origins of his use of the word "orc" are as follows:

  • "the word is as far as I am concerned actually derived from Old English orc 'demon', but only because of its phonetic suitability" (The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, #144, 25 April 1954.)
  • "I originally took the word from Old English orc (Beowulf 112 orc-neas and the gloss orc = þyrs ('ogre'), heldeofol ('hell-devil'). This is supposed not to be connected with modern English orc, ork, a name applied to various sea-beasts of the dolphin order." (Nomenclature of The Lord of the Rings.)
  • "The word used in translation of Q urko, S orch is Orc. But that is because of the similarity of the ancient English word orc, 'evil spirit or bogey', to the Elvish words. There is possibly no connection between them. The English word is now generally supposed to be derived from Latin Orcus." (The War of the Jewels, p. 391.)

The word *orcné (attested in the plural orcnéas) is a hapax legomenon in the poem Beowulf. It is generally supposed to contain an element -né, cognate to Gothic naus and Old Norse nár, both meaning "corpse". The usual Old English word for "corpse" is líc, but -né appears in dryhtné "dead body of a warrior", where dryht is the name of a military unit (vaguely translated "band", "host", etc.). In *orcné, if it is to be glossed as "orcus-corpse" the meaning may be "corpse from Orcus (i.e. the underworld)" or "devil-corpse", understood as some sort of walking dead. This etymology is plausible, but remains conjectural. The word orc appears in two other locations in Beowulf, but in both cases refers to cups of precious metal found in a treasure-hoard.

It is to be noted in connection with Tolkien's reference to a gloss orc=þyrs that while there is an entry in an 11th century English glossary which implies such an equivalence ("[Latin] orcus [Old English] orc þyrs oððe heldeofol", this is in fact a conflation of two glosses in an earlier glossary of the 7th century, found in two different places, namely: "[Latin] orcus [Old English] orc" and "[Latin] orcus [Old English] þyrs oððe heldiubol." The first of these two glosses is in a section devoted to household implements, and orcus is, in that place, a corruption of Latin urceus "jug, pitcher" or of orca "pot, jar". The word orc in these glosses only has the meaning "cup"; it is descended from an early Germanic borrowing from urceus, related to Gothic aurkeis "cup".

Tolkien's assumption that orc and þyrs had the same meaning was therefore an error, though one shared for several decades by other scholars, as it had entered into some commonly-used dictionaries of Old English (e.g. Bosworth and Toller's "An Anglo-Saxon Dictionary" (1898), corrected in later editions).

Early modern usage

As far as what otherwise might have influenced Tolkien, the OED lists a 1656 use (see below) of an English word ‘orke’ in a way reminiscent of giants, ogres and the like. It is presumed that such usage (orke=ogre) came into English via fairy tales from the continent, especially from Charles Perrault (17th cent. France), who himself borrowed most of his stories (and developed his 'ogre') from the 16th century Italian writers Giovanni Francesco Straparola and Giambattista Basile. (Straparola [c. 1440 - c. 1557] has been credited with introducing to Europe the literary form of the 'fairy tale'.)

Basile (d. 1632) wrote in the Naples dialect (though Naples was, at that time, controlled by Spain), claiming simply to be passing on oral folktales from his region that he'd collected over the years. In at least a dozen or more tales, Basile used 'huorco' (or 'huerco', 'uerco') which is the Neapolitan form of ‘orco’ [modern It. ‘giant’, 'monster'] to describe a large, speaking, mannish beast (hairy and tusked) that lived away in a dark forest or garden, and that might be evil (capturing/eating humans), indifferent or even benevolent - all depending on the tale. (See especially his tales Peruonto and Lo Cuento dell'Uerco.)

But the 1656 English use of 'orke' (two years before Perrault published his Mother Goose tales) comes from a fairy-tale by Samuel Holland entitled Don Zara, which is a pastiche and parody of fantastical Spanish romances like Don Quixote, and presumably is populated by beasts and monsters common to them. (Note: Straparola was translated into Spanish in 1583. Independent of this, there is in Spain to this day the folktale of the ‘huerco’ or ‘güercu’, which is a harbinger of impending death; a shade in the form of the person about to die.)

From under the OED entry ‘orc’:

  • 1605 J. SYLVESTER tr. G. de S. Du Bartas Deuine Weekes & Wks. (II. i. 337) “Insatiate Orque, that euen at one repast, Almost all creatures in the World would waste.” [seeming ‘orca’ usage]
  • 1656 S. HOLLAND Don Zara (I. i. 6) “Who at one stroke didst pare away three heads from off the shoulders of an Orke, begotten by an Incubus.” [seeming ‘ogre’ usage]
  • 1854 Putnam's Monthly Mag. (Oct. 380/1) “The elves and the nickers, the orcs and the giants." [usage unclear]
  • 1865 C. KINGSLEY Hereward (I. i. 71) “But beyond, things unspeakable -- dragons, giants, rocs, orcs, witch-whales … ” [usage unclear]

Whether 'orke', 'ogre', 'huerco' or 'orco', the word ultimately comes from Latin Orcus, and has apparently descended by several stages through the meanings "underworld, hell", "devil", "evil creature" and at last "ogre". Note that Tolkien and the lexicons he used also attributed the origin of the doubtful Old English orc to Orcus, and that in one of his invented languages the word for "orc" also had the form orco.

Tolkien, being born in 1892, would certainly have been exposed to the Mother Goose tales and the like. Whether he ever read Straparola, Basile or even Holland's Don Zara is unknown. Whatever the case, he certainly would have come across creatures (orkes and ogres) descended etymologically from L. ‘Orcus’, and not just in Beowulf – though that earliest image seems to be the one that most ‘stuck’ in his mind.

Tolkien explicitly denied any intended connection between his "orc" and the other existing English word orc, referring to the killer whale (Orcinus orca), the grampus and other cetaceans. This is a borrowing from Latin orca (used by Pliny to refer to some kind of whale, quite likely Orcinus orca).

For more on Tolkien's invented etymology of the word "orc", see Tolkien's Orcs below.

Blake's Orc

Main article: Orc (William Blake)

Orc (a proper name) is also one of the characters in the complex mythology of William Blake.

Unlike the medieval sea beast, or Basile's (see above) & Tolkien's humanoid monster, Blake's Orc is a positive figure; the embodiment of creative passion and energy, Orc being an anagram of Cor, heart.

Tolkien's Orcs

Main article: Orc (Middle-earth)

The humanoid, non-maritime race of Orcs that exist in Middle-earth are J. R. R. Tolkien's invention. The term 'Orc' is usually capitalised in Tolkien's writing, but not necessarily in other sources. In Tolkien's writing, Orcs are described as humanoid, but smaller than Men, ugly, and filthy. Although not dim-witted, they are portrayed as dull and miserable beings, who are only able to destroy, not to create.

Orcs are first described in The Tale of Tinúviel as "foul broodlings of Melko who fared abroad doing his evil work". In The Fall of Gondolin Tolkien wrote that "all that race were bred by Melko of the subterranean heats and slime. Their hearts were of granite and their bodies deformed; foul their faces which smiled not, but their laugh that of the clash of metal, and to nothing were they more fain than to aid in the basest of the purposes of Melko."

Orcs eat all manner of flesh, including men and horses. In Chapter II of The Lord of the Rings, a leader of an orc battallion from Isengard claims the Orcs of Mordor are cannibals, but whether that is true or a statement spoken in malice is uncertain. Tolkien also describes them as bow-legged. They fight with ferocity (so long as a guiding 'will' [e.g., Morgoth or Sauron] compels/directs them). In some places, Tolkien describes Orcs as mainly being battle fodder (Cf. The Battles of the Fords of Isen). Orcs are used as soldiers by both the greater and lesser villains of The Lord of the Rings — Sauron and Saruman.

In some versions of his stories, Tolkien conceived Orcs to be marred Elves, enslaved by Morgoth, broken and twisted into his evil soldiers. Other versions (including notes made both early and late in Tolkien's life) have Orcs as 'parodies' or false-creations of Morgoth's that are animated solely by his evil will (or, perhaps, by his own essence diffused into each), and made intentionally to mock or spite Eru's creations - the Eldar and Edain.

Tolkien also "suggested" that Men were cross-bred with Orcs under Morgoth's lieutenant, Sauron (and possibly under Morgoth himself). The fierce Orcs known as Uruk-hai were created in this way. The process was later repeated during the War of the Ring by Saruman, enabling him to make his own Uruks.

When writing the The Hobbit, Tolkien carried over the concept of the "orc" that he had developed in writing early versions of The Silmarillion, just as he carried over references to Elves, Gondolin, and other elements of his Silmarillion mythology. In The Hobbit, however, he mostly used the word 'goblin' for these creatures, though the word "orc" occasionally appears: e.g. when Gandalf describes the Grey Mountains as being "simply stiff with goblins, hobgoblins, and orcs of the worst description". In The Lord of the Rings, "Orc" is used predominantly to describe such creatures, and the use of the term "goblin" seems restricted to use by the Hobbits or to describe Moria orcs.

In The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, larger orcs, called uruk-hai, were bred by Saruman. These were much stronger, and are said to be able to run day and night, without stopping to rest.

Within Tolkien's invented languages, the Elvish words for "orc" are derived from a root ruk referring to fear and horror, from which is derived an expanded form of the root, uruk. A noun *uruku is produced from the extended root. This eventually turns into Quenya urco, plural urqui. A related word *urkō produces Sindarin orch, plural yrch. The Quenya words are said to be less specific in meaning than the Sindarin, meaning "bogey". For the specific creatures called yrch by the Sindar, the Quenya word orco, with plurals orcor and orqui, was created.

These orcs had similar names in other languages of Middle-earth: in Orkish uruk (restricted to the larger soldier-orcs), in the language of the Drúedain gorgûn, in Khuzdul rukhs, plural rakhâs, and in the language of Rohan and in the Common Speech orc.

Orcs in other fantasy works

Since the publication of Tolkien's epic novel, The Lord of the Rings, creatures called "orcs" have become a fixture of fantasy fiction and role-playing games. In these derivative sources, orcs and goblins are usually considered distinct races of goblinoids. For some time they were often depicted with pig-like faces, although there is no such description in Tolkien's work. A possible explanation of this is the coincidence with Irish orc (cognate of English pork) that means 'swine'. An alternative theory is that they were often depicted as pig-like due to the tusked and pig-like description of the orco (ogre) in Canto 17 of Ariosto's Orlando Furioso. (The orco is, of course, described as pig-like because it gave Ariosto a chance to rhyme orco with porco "pig".)

In recent years another orc archetype has appeared; a heavily-muscled, green-skinned barbarian with exaggerated tusks, brow, and lower jaw. Originally created by Games Workshop in the 1980's, this style of orc has since become a signature of the Warcraft series of computer games and spin-offs.

Dungeons & Dragons

For orcs in the Dungeons & Dragons fantasy role-playing game, see Orc (Dungeons & Dragons).

Earthdawn and Shadowrun

In the fantasy role-playing games Earthdawn and Shadowrun, orks are, in contrast to the common fantasy Orc, neither inherently good nor evil. In Earthdawn they have their place among the other name-giving races: Humans, dwarfs, elves, obsidimen, t'skrang, trolls, and windlings. In Shadowrun, orks are just one race among others on Earth in the years past 2050. They emerged during the Unexplained Genetic Expression in the year 2021 as either young humans changed to orks or ones born as orks from human parents. They are categorized as homo sapiens robustus, and are considered metahumans, like trolls, elves, and dwarfs.

Orks are able to interbreed with humans and fellow metahumans. Despite this, their offspring will be of the race of only one of their parents. No half-breeds exist. They grow much faster than humans, reach maturity at the age of 12, and give birth to a litter of about four children, though six to eight are not uncommon. Their average life-expectancy is about 35 to 40 years. They are physically larger and stronger than humans. Their mental capacities are considered slightly inferior on average to humans, though they are still not as dull as the average troll.

Sovereign Stone Series

In the Sovereign Stone Trilogy, Orks' are a seafaring people, and with Humans, Elves, Dwarves and Lizardmen, one of the five great species that rule the land. They are very superstitious, believeing in even the slightest omen. They are aligned to the element of water and their leader, The Captain of Captains, possesses one fifth of the prized Sovereign Stone as well as being a Dominion Lord.


Main articles: Orc (Warhammer) and Ork (Warhammer 40,000)

Games Workshop's Warhammer Fantasy and Warhammer 40,000 games feature Orcs as well (spelled Orks in Warhammer 40,000). The latter setting is unique for featuring Orks in a science fiction environment, capable of building crude, but functional vehicles, firearms and even spaceships. Physiologically, Warhammer Orcs are taller and broader than humans, with short legs and long arms much like an ape. They have massive heads which come directly forward on their necks, giving them a stooping appearance. They have tough thick green skin which is highly resistant to pain.

Warhammer Orcs aren't very smart, but can be cunning at times. They are extremely warlike and the whole society is geared towards constant warfare. This constant need to fight is the expression of Orc culture, a fact that keeps the Orcs from forming anything but temporary alliances with each other. In combat they can transform even the most common object into a lethal killing instrument. Orcs tend to ally with Goblins (called Gretchin in Warhammer 40,000) and Snotlings, but their alliance is more of a matter of the Orcs bullying their smaller Goblinoid (Orkoid in Warhammer 40,000) cousins into being everything from servants, to Human (Goblin) shields, to an emergency food source. They worship a pair of gods known as Gork and Mork.


Main article: Orc (Warcraft)

In the Warcraft computer game series, the great Orcish race was a savage, but noble race. They were shamanistic and fierce warriors. Their race came from the world of Draenor, and were corrupted by a demonic force known as the Burning Legion, because the Legion saw that they could make what could be their most fierce and savage army. Under the Legion's influence, the Orcish Horde slaughtered the Draenei, another race native to Draenor, and then were led to the world of Azeroth. After two devastating wars, the Orcs were finally defeated on Azeroth and rounded up into internment camps. They remained there until a young Orc named Thrall, who was raised by humans, rallied them together, finally freed the Horde from their demonic taint, and helped return them to their shamanistic roots.

Warcraft Orcs are humanoid, but prodigiously muscled and green with broad noses and distinctive tusked mouths. Male orcs are significantly larger than humans, around 6 and a half feet tall when standing straight. Females are slightly larger than a human female, and while much more slender than their male counterparts, they are nonetheless well-muscled. Female orcs' tusks are very small to nearly nonexistant, becoming more exaggerated canines than tusks per se. Both are characterized by wearing scant armor with horned helmets and using axes as weapons. Warcraft is one of the few settings in which Orcs are not inherently evil, and can even be heroic, at least in the latest games in the series. One could even make a point that the orcs are unfairly treated by humans and more heroic than them as well; but, unfortunately, the humans are generally considered to be justified in this based on the fact that it was the horde, more specifically the Orcs, that they witnessed and fought valiantly against during the first invasions. In this, the Humans of Azeroth have earned a prejudice.

Their political standpoint in the Warcraft universe is set as the leading race of the Horde, an association of races made to help their mutual survival. The Orcs' political rival is the Humans, the leading Race of the Alliance. The Horde consists of Orcs as mentioned, an exile tribe of Jungle Trolls, the Tauren, and the Undead (Were humans before affected by a plague released by other humans. Also known as the Forsaken.), and soon a faction of Elves, known as Blood Elves.


In the Hârn universal fantasy role-playing setting (and the distinct subsequently developed game system) created by N. Robin Crossby and published by Columbia Games, orcs are called Gargûn. While loosely derived from the Tolkien mythos, they have a distinct morphology and life-cycle similar to the naked mole rat. There are five distinct species of Gargun, none of whom can interbreed. They are squat, hairy, nasty, brutish, and short creatures. Some species are subterranean, while others can be found above ground in roving bands. One of the larger species is the Gargu-Khanu. Gargu-Khanu are often found in mixed-species colonies where they are overlords of the smaller vassal species, controlling access to the singular breeding queen of the other species as well as their own.

The Killing Spirit

The Killing Spirit, a fantasy novel written by Sean-Michael Argo, engages the race of orcs from their own perspective. The orcs are presented as being the creations of a race of gods, called the Sheul. While similar to the Tolkien mythos, the orcs are divided into two groups. The first group are swarthy and stooped, living in clans on the coasts and mainland. The other group are tall and proud tribal warriors of dark forests and frozen mountains. The orcish women live in communal huts and choose mates based on perceived 'supremacy'. Unlike other fantasy settings, the orcs of this setting are portrayed as being highly intelligent and able to use magic, though have a brutish language that combines with their violent tendencies to create the illusion of simplicity. A unique element is that they are able to use magic to transform themselves into eldritch berzerkers, which they call the Gor-Angir, or 'the killing spirit'.

Final Fantasy XI

In the MMORPG Final Fantasy XI, the Orcs are a tribe of Beastmen. During the Age of Darkness, the Orcs were constructed by the god Promathia to constantly battle with the human(oid)s of Vana'diel. Though the Orcish Empire lies far to the north, its advance forces have two large strongholds near the city of San d'Oria: the Davoi Monastery and Fort Ghelsba. The Orcs frequently launch small missions out of their strongholds, and they practically control Jugner Forest and Ronfaure.

Personality-wise, they follow the same pattern as many fantasy Orcs: brutish, savage and slow witted. Their entire culture is centred on violence; service in the Orcish military is mandatory for both males and females, and social standing is determined by military rank. The Orcs formerly occupied a sacred garden in Ronfaure which was destroyed as the San d’Orian Empire expanded during the Age of Power, adding to their already fierce hatred of the peoples of Vana'diel.

The Elder Scrolls series

Orsimer, these sophisticated barbarian beast peoples of the Wrothgarian and Dragontail Mountains are noted for their unshakeable courage in war and their unflinching endurance of hardships. In the past, Orcs have been widely feared and hated by the other nations and races of Tamriel, but they have slowly won acceptance in the Empire, in particular for their distinguished service in the Emperor's Legions. Orcish armorers are prized for their craftsmanship, and Orc warriors in heavy armor are among the finest front-line troops in the Empire. Most Imperial citizens regard Orc society as rough and cruel, but there is much to admire in their fierce tribal loyalties and generous equality of rank and respect among the sexes. According to ancient legend, they were once elves before the Daedric Prince Boethiah corrupted their god and stole their heritage.

The Orcs of the Elder Scrolls are generally depicted as of similar stature and build as large humans. Their culture produces proud, but often dull-witted, warriors (although some have demonstrated exceptional intelligence). They have bestial faces, often with tusks. The female Orcs appear slightly more human, but also have a trace of the bestiality in their features. Until Daggerfall, Orcs were rampaging monsters hunted by the other races. Their leader, Gortwog, tired of their nomadic lives and outlaw nature, used the Numidium to create the city Nova Orsinium, gaining his race respect and recognition as citizens of the Empire. Though some orcs have turned to this new way of life, many are still outlaws.


In Utopia, a web-based tactic game, Orcs are one of the 8 races. In Utopia, Orcs are known for good offensive abilities and weak capabilities in the art of magic and thievery. They are a destructive and evil race by description. In the real game, there are no good or evil races. There is no visual description of Orcs in Utopia because of the non-visual, text based nature of the game.

Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magick Obscura

In Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magick Obscura, orcs are descended from early humans, although they were popularly considered a monstrous race before the Industrial Revolution. They generally look like savage parodies of humans. Orcs are strong and hearty but live short life spans. Before the Industrial Revolution, they were nomads who lived off the land and occasionally off of people unlucky enough to travel near them. As time passes, more orcs move to cities, where their strength and stamina make them ideal factory workers. Although they are considered intellectually inferior, their lack of brain power may be the result of their poor upbringing and educational opportunities; people of orcish descent who receive the opportunity to reach their full potential prove to be as able-minded as humans.


Orkworld is a role-playing game which attempts to develop orcs as a complete and viable culture. The Orkworld version operates in a matriarchal society with very strong communal ties. They are attempting to hold off genocidal humans, elves, and dwarves.

Magic: The Gathering

In the CCG Magic:The Gathering, Orcs are portrayed as generally cowardly warriors who relied extensively on the smaller, less intelligent Goblins when waging warfare. Very few creatures of the "Orc" type were printed, most of which appeared in the Fallen Empires and Ice Age expansion sets. While Orcs were reprinted in more recent core sets, they never appeared in any other expansion sets, possibly due to being superfluous; Goblins best represented the unthinking and vicious warmongering associated with the game's Red color.

Palladium Fantasy

In the Palladium Fantasy Role-play Game, orcs are a race of stupid, but strong, humanoids who may be descended from faeries. They are frequently the pawns of more powerful creatures, as they tend to respect strength (be it physical or magical). They have very strong family ties, however.


In Flintloque, a fantasy wargame based on the Napoleonic Wars Orcs come from Albion and Guinelia, representing the English and Irish, specifically. They have similar cultures to their real world counterparts at that time.

Orcs in Sport

An unknown person has created the rumor that Tolkien labelled Orcs in an attack against his least favourite team, the Oxford Rugby Club.[citation needed] This is a somewhat malicious jest, as Tolkien was both an Oxfordian for most of his career, and an old player at rugby. The actual name of the club is in any case the Oxford Rugby Football Club.

Orcish music

The Swedish music group Za Frûmi started making music inspired by orcs in the year 2000. Since then 2 CDs been released in their orcish tale. Speech in the music is in black speech. The debut CD is called "Za Shum Ushatar Uglakh," which means "the great warrior Uglakh."

(Via Wikipedia.)


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