Geek Etymology – Orcs!

Here I am back at it again taking a look at the origins behind some of our favourite geekiest words. Today I’ll be tackling a seemingly straightforward word, and that is ‘orc’. As everybody should know, this is yet another fantasy creature, and should prove to have a relatively simple history behind it, but where does the word actually come from?

Orcs from LotR: The Two Towers

Before we start, we should first define what an orc actually is. Orcs, sometimes spelled ‘orks’ tend to be brutish and violent, if not evil, humanoid creatures that are generally depicted with somewhat animalistic features such as tusks, snouts, or sometimes with an ape-like appearance. They are popularly depicted as green-skinned but also are sometimes black, grey or brown in colour. They are also commonly seen as large muscular figures, usually much larger than a human, but are also often small and scrawny and akin to a goblin. It can be hard to define their appearance overall, as they are depicted with a very wide range of characteristics, often even within the same piece of fiction.

Goblins or Orcs from The Hobbit – Illustrated by Alan Lee

The obvious starting point for the modern use of the word ‘orc’ is the works of Tolkien. Originally in The Hobbit, published in 1937, the creatures that would later be referred to as orcs started out as goblins, and the terms have been interchangeable when talking about Tolkien’s orcs ever since. Goblins in fantasy and folklore are generally small, ugly and mischievous creatures, and this fits the bill for the goblins of The Hobbit. In later works that take a more serious tone the term of orc was used, and the use of the word goblin appears to mainly be used by hobbits. Tolkien goes further to have a breed of orcs, named Uruk-hai, that were larger and stronger than other orcs, as well as humans. Tolkien stated that he wished to change the spelling of the word to ‘ork’ later on. Most of the characteristics of orcs come from The Lord of the Rings. These were built upon in later fantasy works such as Dungeons & Dragons, and Games Workshop’s Warhammer which seems to be one of the main influences for many other depictions of orcs to become large, muscled and green-skinned.

Warhammer Orcs

It’s a fairly well-known fact that most of Tolkien’s iconic fantasy races were inspired by those of fairy-stories and mythology, especially the Elves and Dwarves which both come from Norse myths. Therefore, it may be safe to assume that he also turned to these sources when he was looking for a new name for his goblin-like creatures. Well Tolkien himself referred to the origins of the word that he chose, and it is apparently found in Old English. He said: “the word is, as far as I am concerned, actually derived from Old English orc ‘demon’, but only because of its phonetic suitability”. Looking into this is appears that the word did appear in Beowulf, the famous Old English poem that Tolkien was very familiar with. In the line “eotenas ond ylfe ond orcneas” where three different creatures are named, with ‘eotenas’ usually translated as ‘giant’ or ‘ettin’ similar to the Old Norse ‘Jottun’. The second word, ‘ylfe’ appears to be elf. And the final word is something of a mystery as it has no other known appearances, so it is hard to know the meaning in only one context. The word is thought to be orcné in singular. The element -né, seemingly relates to the Gothic naus and Old Norse nár, both meaning ‘corpse’ The usual Old English word for corpse is líc, but -né appears in some examples such as dryhtné ‘dead body of a warrior’, where dryht is the name of a military unit that could be translated as ‘band’ or ‘host’.

Orcs of the Warcraft movie adaptation

The actual ‘orc’ part of the word is somewhat harder to decipher. Orc appears in two other locations in the poem Beowulf, but refers to cups of precious metal found in a treasure-hoard. This is where some confusion may have occurred, because the word ‘orc’ may actually mean ‘cup’, and be descended from the Latin urceus ‘jug’, ‘pitcher’, or orca ‘pot’, ‘jar’. This may have come through an early Germanic aurkeis ‘cup’, both related to Modern English ark ‘vessel’, ‘container’. If we manage to ignore all of these cups then we can perhaps get to a more meaningful root of the word in the Latin orcus, which was the demonic Roman god of death. This word transformed by several stages from the meanings “underworld”, “hell”, “devil”. So going back to the ‘orcneas’ of Beowulf, the meaning could very well be interpreted as “corpse from orcus” meaning a corpse from the underworld, which could be understood as some sort of undead creature. Orcus is also thought to have influenced the other fantasy creature, the ‘ogre’ which seems to have come through Italian folklore recorded in the 16th century (so is presumably older) as ‘orco’. By association with death and the underworld, the term orcus also began to see use for other monstrous creatures and incorporated into the medieval bestiary. In particular, the Italian orco implies an anthropomorphic creature with bestial aspects, often demonic. Orco seems to have eventually become ‘ogre’ in later French fairy-tales in the 17th century, something Tolkien may have also been familiar with.

I hope that wasn’t too confusing to follow, but as it turns out there are always a lot of common roots and similar words that can make looking into etymology fairly tricky. And in the end it is fairly hard to use words to explain other words without things becoming inaccurate or a mess! If you did happen to enjoy this then take a look at my other geek etymology posts found HERE, there are a few other examples of certain terms that find their way into fantasy as entirely different words but somehow have a common root back somewhere in Roman or Old Norse times, and that’s always interesting to discover!


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