Notes on the origin and etymology of the orc in English, inspired by seeing someone slightly more than my own age recently remarking on their belief that the word was invented by Tolkien, and that it had become a “word” courtesy of Peter Jackson’s film-adaptation of his Lord of the Rings trilogy, further asserting that before the movies, no one “their age” would have understood the word!
Poor Blake! Forgotten so soon?
In thunders ends the voice. Then Albions Angel wrathful burnt
beside the Stone of Night; and like the Eternal Lions howl
in famine & war, reply’d. Art thou not Orc, who serpent-form’d
stands at the gate of Enitharmon to devour her children;
Blasphemous Demon, Antichrist, hater of Dignities;
Lover of wild rebellion and transgresser of Gods Law;
Why dost thou come to Angels eyes in this terrific form?
Blake, America: A Prophecy, 1793
His Orc, a major character in his literary mythology, derives from both the attested English meanings of orc as a noun:
orc, n. 1
Originally: any of various ferocious sea creatures. In later use: a large cetacean, esp. the killer whale, Orcinus orca. Cf. ORCA, n. Now rare.
1590. J. Stewart, Poems II.40, “Strong ourks and phoks and monsters euerie day | From seis he send.”
1631. P. Fletcher, Sicelides III, “That Orke mouth of thine did crumme thy porridge with my grandsires braines.”
1794. W. Jones, Hindu Wife 42, “Some slowly through green waves advancing. E’en orcs and river-dragons felt Their iron bosoms melt.”
orc, n. 2
A devouring monster; an ogre; spec. a member of an imaginary race of subhuman creatures, small and human-like in form but having ogreish features and warlike, malevolent characters.
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.
1854. Putnam’s Monthly Magazine, Oct. 380/1, “The elves and the nickers, the orcs and the giants.”
1865. C. Kingsley, Hereward, I. i. 71, “But beyond, things unspeakable—dragons, giants, orcs, […]”
The Oxford English Dictionary, 3rd ed., 2004.
As the citations suggest, Blake was also neither the first nor only to use the word in English. There were two distinct forms of orc in use in early, Anglo-Saxon English; one, from the Latin orca (II A), referring to a large vessel (in OE, this was generally used to refer to religious cups, chalices or other offering vessels), has not persisted into modern English, but the other, deriving from the Latin Orcus, referred more to an evil or underworld spirit, or the underworld itself, and in compound words reflected a meaning closer to what has persisted into the modern language.
Þanon untydras ealle onwocon,
eotenas ond ylfe ond orc-neas,
swylce gigantas, þa wið Gode wunnon
Then all the evil brood were born, ettins and elves and hell-fiends, even the giants, who strove with God
Beowulf, ll. 111–113
The usage evolving in later English however was modified, or reinforced perhaps, by the influence of the word as it had passed through other languages which had derived their own usage via the Latin Orcus, such as the Italian orco, a sort of man-eating giant relating to the similar Spanish ogro (and English kin ogre), etc. The description of the sea-monster orc of cantos CI–CX of Ludovico Ariosto‘s Orlando furioso (1516–1532) combines a mixture of the two meanings, applying the tusks and other monstrous features of the typical humanoid orc to the sea-monster orca, as can be seen in many of the illustrations of the scene of Ruggiero rescuing Angelica, such as those of Doré. The encounter was summarized in 1863,
Rogero, lance in rest, spurred his Hippogriff toward the Orc, and gave him a thrust. The horrible monster was like nothing that nature produces. It was but one mass of tossing and twisting body, with nothing of the animal but head, eyes and mouth, the last furnished with tusks like those of the wild boar. Rogero’s lance had struck him between the eyes, but rock and iron are not more impenetrable than were his scales. The knight, seeing the fruitlessness of the first blow, prepared to give a second. The animal, beholding upon the water the shadow of the great wings of the Hippogriff, abandoned his prey, and turned to seize what seemed nearer. Rogero took the opportunity, and dealt him furious blows on various parts of his body, taking care to keep clear of his murderous teeth; but the scales resisted every attack. The Orc beat the water with his tail till he raised a foam which enveloped Rogero and his steed, so that the knight hardly knew whether he was in the water or the air. He began to fear that the wings of the Hippogriff would be so drenched with water that they would cease to sustain him. At that moment Rogero bethought him of the magic shield which hung at his saddle-bow; but the fear that Angelica would also be blinded by its glare discouraged him from employing it. Then he remembered the ring which Melissa had given him, the power of which he had so lately proved. He hastened to Angelica and placed it on her finger. Then, uncovering the buckler, he turned its bright disk full in the face of the detestable Orc. The effect was instantaneous. The monster, deprived of sense and motion, rolled over on the sea, and lay floating on his back.
Thomas Bulfinch, Legends of Charlemagne, “The Orc”
Only a few years later, Robert Browning’s work, The Ring and the Book was published in 1869,
Methinks I view some ancient bas-relief.
There stands Hesione thrust out by Troy,
her father’s hand has chained her to a crag,
her mother’s from the virgin plucked the vest,
at a safe distance both distressful watch,
while near and nearer comes the snorting orc.
I look that, white and perfect to the end,
she wait till Jove despatch some demigod;
not that,—impatient of celestial club
Alcmena’s son should brandish at the beast,—
she daub, disguise her dainty limbs with pitch,
and so elude the purblind monster!
ibid., ix, Juris Doctor Johannes-Baptista Bottinius—
Fisci et Rev. Cam. Apostol. Advocatus
When Joshua Sylvester in 1604 published his translation of one of King James’ favorite poets Guillaume de Salluste Du Bartas’ La Sepmaine; ou Création du monde of 1581, he described Hunger thus,
Here first comes Dearth, the lively form of death,
still yawning wide with loathsome, sickening breath,
with hollow eyes, with meager cheeks and chin,
with sharp, lean bones piercing her sable skin,
her empty bowels may be plainly spied
clean through the wrinkles of her withered hide.
She hath no belly but the belly’s seat,
her knees and knuckles swelling hugely great,
insatiate Orque that, even at one repast,
almost all creatures in the world would waste;
whose greedy gorge dish after dish doth draw,
seeks meat in meat. For still her monstrous maw
voids in devouring, and sometimes she eats
her own dear babes for lack of other meats.
Nay, more; sometimes, O strangest gluttony,
she eats herself, herself to satisfy,
lessening herself, herself so to enlarge,
and cruel thus she doth our grandsire charge;
and brings besides from Limbo to assist her
Rage, feebleness and thirst, her ruthless sister.
Du Bartas His Devine Weekes and Workes Translated,
II, The Story of Adam, iii, “The Furies”
If the nouns aren’t enough orc for you, it’s also attested as a verb; e.g., “I Orkt you once, and Ile fit you for a Cupid.” And, no, Tolkien had nothing to do with it—it’s from Fletcher’s Sicelides of 1631.