Why Are They Called “Orcs?”

Another quickie for buffer reclamation purposes. Why are they called “orcs?” This one here includes a dive into a completely made up language by the only one who has ever done fantasy languages right, JRR Tolkien. The Elvish word for “goblin” is “yrch” in JRR Tolkien’s complete, properly developed, “I have an actual PhD in this field” constructed language of Sindarin. The word “yrch” is Romanized or…I guess Westronized? Into “orc” by human speakers.

That quick dip into Tolkien lore is not actually the answer, though, because the foundations for the word “orc” existed in real languages already. The connection to Sindarin was just Tolkien adding fictitious etymologies to his world, something he did because he had the attention to detail to actually get languages right. Has it come across that I really dislike the constructed languages of most Tolkien imitators? That’s a thing I’m not fond of.

In any case, the real world etymology of “orc” is not entirely clear. There are four possible antecedents some of which may have informed one another, and any or all of them could have been the predecessor to “orc” (and the etymologically related “ogre”). The Latin Orcus is another word for Hell or the Underworld, and is where D&D gets the name of its most famous demon prince, but a more direct connection comes from the Old English “orcneas,” which means “monsters,” and the Italian “orco,” which means “monster.” Italian is informed quite a bit by Latin and not so much by Old English, so my guess is that this is a word spreading from Latin or Italian to Old English, but actual real linguists are apparently undecided on the issue, so I wouldn’t bet anything on that.

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