The Origin of the Orc

Scott Oden, author of "Twilight of the Gods" uncovers the fascinating etymology of "orc."

Scott Oden, Writing For
4-minute read

Nowadays, you say the word "orc" and it immediately conjures an image based on your media experiences.  Perhaps you see the hulking green-skinned barbarians of "Warhammer" fame, or the misunderstood Noble Savages of "Elder Scrolls;" maybe your vision of the orc is the pig-snouted monsters made famous by artist David C. Sutherland III for "Dungeons & Dragons."  Or, like me, you speak the word and in your mind’s eye you see a horde of bestial creatures enslaved to a Dark Lord, as personified by (and, indeed, originating with) the works of English scholar and author J.R.R. Tolkien.  And Tolkien is undoubtedly the founder of this particular feast.  The orc as we know it came into being in the early 20th century, as the faceless minions of Tolkien’s original dark lord, Melkor, in the writings that would become "The Silmarillion."

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Despite serving as their creator, orcs occupy hardly any time on the pages of Tolkien’s seminal trilogy, "The Lord of the Rings."  The narrative goes on for more than 300 pages before we see the first orc, a great chieftain in Moria; after that, we see them again in three chapters and meet only a dozen or so named orc characters, often in passing.  Nevertheless, something about these foot-soldiers of evil struck a chord with readers.  After the success of "The Lord of the Rings" in the 1960s, orcs became eponymous as cannon-fodder; a race of disposable, faceless mooks.  They migrated into the nascent tabletop role-playing game hobby via "Dungeons & Dragons" (1974) and then into video games and other media.

Along the way, a strange thing happened.  Other writers took it upon themselves to liberate orcs from their status as lowly minions.

Along the way, a strange thing happened.  Other writers took it upon themselves to liberate orcs from their status as lowly minions.  While they took center stage in Mary Gentle’s 1992 satirical fantasy novel, "Grunts," it was British author Stan Nicholls who properly launched the “Orcish renaissance” with the 1999 publication of "Bodyguard of Lightning," the first book in his "Orcs: First Blood" trilogy.  In the twenty-one years since, orcs have grown beyond the role set forth by their creator to become protagonists in their own right.

So, we know what they are, but where did Tolkien find the word "orc"?  Like much of what makes up the good Professor’s expansive legendarium, Tolkien did not so much invent the word as he did merely repurpose it.  Indeed, it hails from Old English, specifically from the epic poem "Beowulf":

"þanon untydras ealle onwocon

eotenas ond ylfe ond orcnéas

swylce gigantas þa wið gode wunnon

lange þrage he him ðæs lean forgeald"

—Beowulf, Fitt I, vv. 111–14 (emphasis mine)


"Thence all evil broods were born,

ettins and elves and evil spirits

—the giants also, who long time fought with God,

for which he gave them their reward"

But, who or what were these "orcnéas" (sing. "orcné")?  The translated line, above, gives some indication based on context.  It catalogs the evils of the world: "ettins" (the Old English version of "jǫtunn"—"giants" in Old Norse), "elves," and "evil spirits."  Frederick Klaeber, however, did not believe that specific translation—of "orcneas" as “evil spirits”—did the word proper justice.  There was a deeper, more sinister meaning to it.  In his landmark work, "Beowulf and the Finnesburg Fragment" (1950. Translated by John R. Clark Hall [3 ed.] Allen & Unwin), Klaeber noted that "orcnéas" was a composite built from a Latin root-word, "orcus," coupled with a unique suffix, "-né."

Orcus should be familiar to aficionados of Roman mythology, for it is the name of the god of the underworld.  Like his Greek counterpart, Hades, the physical location of Orcus’s realm bore the name "Orcus," as well.  Anglo-Latin writers, like the anonymous author of "Beowulf," often used "orc/orcus" to mean “hell.”  The suffix -né (pl. "-néas") is philologically linked to the Old Norse "nár."  Both were words that meant “corpse."  The literal translation of "orcnéas," then, is “hell-corpse,” a reanimated dead thing not unlike a horror movie zombie or a Norse "draugr."  We can sense a certain glee in Frederick Klaeber’s final comment on the etymology of "orcnéas:" “Necromancy was practised among the ancient German!”

After "Beowulf," the word "orcnéas" died out.  It wasn’t until the Early Modern period that a handful of similar words returned to fashion—all of which shared the same root as "orcnéas" and mean approximately the same thing.  Italian "orco," Neapolitan "huerco," and French "ogre."  This last word came into English from the French fairy tales of Charles Perrault (1628-1703), who borrowed liberally from Italian folk-and-fairy tales, particularly the works of Giovanni Francesco Straparola (d. 1558) and Giambattista Basile (d. 1632).

From "Orcus," to "orcnéas," to "orco," to "huerco," to "ogre" . . . it is an etymological pedigree that spans the centuries to describe something not even a hundred years old: the orc.