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Meaning
Derives from Old English, 'demons' (but see The Etymology of 'Orc' below)
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  • Updated 24 March 2002
  • Updates planned: 88

Orcs

Warring servants of the Dark Lords

Little is known for certain of the beginnings of the Orcs, the footsoldiers of the Enemy. It is said that they were in origin corrupted Elves captured by Melkor before the beginning of the First Age. In appearance, Orcs were squat, swarthy creatures. Most of them preferred the darkness, being blinded by the light of the Sun, but the kinds bred later in the Third Age such as the Uruk-hai could endure the daylight.


The Etymology of ‘Orc’

'...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 No 144, dated 1953

The word orc could be called the Tom Bombadil of Tolkien's etymology; it occurs in different variants in almost all the languages of Middle-earth, but we have almost no details of how they interconnect. The variety of 'orc'-words is illustrated by Tolkien himself:

'Orc is the form of the name that other races had for this foul people as it was in the language of Rohan. In Sindarin it was orch. Related, no doubt, was the word uruk in the Black Speech...'
The Lord of the Rings
Appendix F I The Languages and Peoples of the Third Age

So it is clear that these words are all related (and orc is also, apparently, used freely by speakers of the Common Tongue). What is harder to discover, though, is how these words are all related to one another. Why does the rural hobbit-dialect use essentially the same word for these creatures as in the courts of Minas Tirith or Caras Galadhon? When it comes to the word's origins, there are three possible theories.

Theory 1: Ancient Mannish Tongues

The connection of orc to Old English strongly suggests a Mannish origin. Other old words of this kind, like mathom and smial, have their origins in the ancient tongues of the Northmen (hence the shared understanding between the Hobbits and Rohirrim, whose ancestors had once lived in the same northern regions). This language can be traced back to the ancestors of the Edain in the First Age, from whose language also came the Adûnaic tongue of Númenor and ultimately the Common Speech of Middle-earth.

This puts the first pieces of the puzzle into place. If the word orc is shared by the language of the Rohirrim, the dialect of the Hobbits and the Westron tongue, it must date back at least to these ancient ancestors of Men. However, orc surely cannot have been invented by these Mannish-speakers. They came late onto a linguistic scene in which Sindarin was already well established. At the time the Elves encountered Men, they had been warring with the Orcs for centuries - it is not plausible that they would have abandoned their own word for their foe and replaced it with one from a coarse alien tongue. The only realistic alternative is that the earliest Men did not invent the word orc for themselves, but adapted it from Elvish orch, and then passed it down to their descendants. This accounts for Tolkien's qualification '..but only because of its phonetic suitability...' quoted above.

Theory 2: Orkish Dialects

An apparently more practical theory might be that the Orcs invented their own name for themselves, and the other races (especially the Elves) adopted this for their own use. Unfortunately, this doesn't fit with the established facts:

'It is said that [the Orcs] had no language of their own, but took what they could of other tongues and perverted it to their own liking...'
The Lord of the Rings
Appendix F I The Languages and Peoples of the Third Age

This seems to suggest that the Orcs didn't originally have a name for their own kind, but borrowed it from some other source. This is a strange conclusion to be sure, but it seems the only one discernable from the text. We would have to presume that this acquired name was then incorporated into Sauron's Black Speech when it was created long after. If the Orcs didn't invent their own word uruk, then, it must have come from some other source.

Theory 3: Elvish

The only remaining plausible theory is that it was the Elves who invented the word, and passed it on to the other races, including the Orcs themselves. This is borne out by The Etymologies (in volume 5 of The History of Middle-earth), where we find a reference to an Elvish root órok, from which the various Elvish words for 'goblin' derive. This seems to be the oldest origin of the word, from which all the others developed.

See also...

Agarwaen, Aghan, Algund, Amon Rûdh, Anach, Angband, Angmar, Ants, Apes, Aragorn Elessar, Aragost, Arahad I, Arahad II, Arassuil, Arathorn II, [See the full list...]

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