Orc is from Old English orcneas, which appears in the epic poem Beowulf, and refers to one of the races who are called the offspring of Cain during the initial description of Grendel ("Þanon untydras ealle onwocon,/eotenas ond ylfe, ond orcneas," ll. 111-112). In a letter of 1954 Tolkien gave orc as "demon" and claimed he used the word because of its "phonetic suitability" - its similarity to various equivalent terms in his Middle-earth languages. In an essay on Elven languages, written in 1954, Tolkien gives meaning of 'orc' as "evil spirit or bogey" and goes on to state that the origin of the Old English word is the Latin name Orcus — god of the underworld.
About the goblins of The Hobbit, Tolkien wrote:
They are not based on direct experience of mine; but owe, I suppose, a good deal to the goblin tradition ... especially as it appears in George MacDonald, except for the soft feet which I never believed in.
The earliest appearance of goblins in Tolkien's writings is the 1915 poem Goblin Feet, also his first published work, which appeared in the annual volume of Oxford Poetry published by Blackwells. It features quaint elvin creatures, and some 45 years later Tolkien was to dismiss it as juvenile.
In The Book of Lost Tales the names Orcs and goblin are given to creatures who enslave and war with the Elves. Christopher Tolkien notes that whilst in the Tale of Tinúviel the author clearly differentiates between "goblins and Orcs", the two terms appear to be synonymous in the Tale of Turambar. The word Gongs is also used on a few occasions and it appears both distinct from Orcs, and as a sub-type of Orc, Christopher Tolkien remarks that Gongs are "evil beings obscurely related to Orcs". Both goblins and Orcs are occasionally mentioned as being "of Melkor" and also acting independently. Two Lexicons of elvish language also appear. The Quenta Lexicon from approximately 1915 defines Orc as meaning "monster, demon", and the Gnomish Lexicon dated 1917, gives Orc a definition of "goblin", alongside a definition of Gong as "one of a tribe of the Orcs, a goblin". Christopher Tolkien also notes, with interest, that in the Lexicon, the word Gnome (later Noldor) is an emendation from Goblin.
In The Hobbit, the inhabitants of the Misty Mountains who capture the dwarves for trespassing, and later fight the Men, Elves and Dwarves at the Battle of Five Armies, are identified as goblins, which is largely consistent with the use in The Book of Lost Tales. The term Orc does occur twice; once in an instance where Gandalf is trying to scare Bilbo by mentioning creatures of the wilderness "goblins, hobgoblins, and orcs of the worst description," and again when the narrator mentions Orcs as nothing but large goblins, and also in the Elvish name of Thorin's sword, Orcrist.
In The Lord of the Rings, Orc is used predominantly, and goblin appears mostly in the Hobbits' speech. The second volume of the novel, The Two Towers, contains passages where the more generic 'goblin' is used to describe Saruman's Uruk-hai as being different from the usual 'Orc':
There were four goblin-soldiers of greater stature, swart, slant-eyed, with thick legs and large hands. They were armed with short broad-bladed swords, not with the curved scimitars usual with Orcs: and they had bows of yew, in length and shape like the bows of Men.
Upon a stake in the middle was set a great goblin head; upon its shattered helm the white badge could still be seen.
The "white badge" mentioned in the latter passage makes it clear that the beheaded goblin was one of the Uruk-hai. Tolkien writes that these bore a white Elf-rune with the value of "S" on their helmets.
Tolkien also wrote the following note, appearing in some editions of The Hobbit:
Orc is not an English word. It occurs in one or two places but is usually translated goblin (or hobgoblin for the larger kinds). Orc is the hobbits' form of the name given at that time to these creatures, and it is not connected at all with orc, ork, applied to sea-animals of dolphin-kind.
The original edition of The Hobbit and early drafts of The Lord of the Rings first used goblin everywhere and used hobgoblin for larger, more evil goblins. Whilst investigating possible sources for the word "Hobbit" Tolkien realised he had made a mistake in using hob-, which is traditionally used to mean a smaller entity, not a larger one.
In his later, post-The Lord of the Rings writings (including The Adventures of Tom Bombadil and many essays published in The Peoples of Middle-earth), Tolkien preferred the spelling Ork, evidently mainly to avoid the form Orcish, which would be naturally pronounced with the c as /s/ instead of /k/ in English. Tolkien indeed used the adjective Orkish.
Orcs are described as ugly and filthy fanged humanoids. The largest can reach near-human height, but they are always shorter, and some are as small as Hobbits (since Frodo and Sam disguise themselves as such when they enter Mordor). In contrast, crossbreeds between Men and Orcs are called "man-high, but with goblin-faces." However, some Orcs are very broad, if not tall. Many Orcs have long arms, like monkeys or apes. Many of them also have crooked backs and legs.
Tolkien describes Orcs explicitly in one of his Letters:
...they are (or were) squat, broad, flat-nosed, sallow-skinned, with wide mouths and slant eyes; in fact degraded and repulsive versions of the (to Europeans) least lovely Mongol-types.
Readers have debated at length the extent and meaning of the seemingly racist imagery in Tolkien's writings, including Michael D. C. Drout, Tom Shippey, Stephen Shapiro. and Mount Vernon Nazarene University professor Anderson Rearick III.
Types of Orcs
There is much variation among Orcs. The Uruks (who called themselves Uruk-hai) are larger, more powerful and have black skin; they call smaller and weaker Orcs snaga ("slave"). Sauron apparently bred specialized types, such as the "super-soldier" Uruk-hai, and smaller tracker Orcs or "Snufflers" (described as "of a small breed, black-skinned"). Early texts in The History of Middle-earth mention Maiar incarnate in Orc-bodies called Boldogs (see below).
Tolkien wrote of Saruman crossbreeding Orcs and Men, producing Men-orcs and Orc-men in "Myths Revisited" in Morgoth's Ring. The half-orcs and goblin-men, mentioned by Gamling at Helm's deep, seem likely to have been crossbreeds, and they are not described much beyond being "creatures of Isengard", "that the foul craft of Saruman has bred", and that "they will not quail at the sun". Half-Orcs are described later on by Meriadoc Brandybuck, who saw them marching out of Isengard, as "horrible: man-high, but with goblin-faces, sallow, leering, squint-eyed." The hobbits occasionally encounter unusual-looking Men such as the "ruffians" in the Shire, implying some of these might be half-orcs.
The Uruk-hai of Saruman, exemplified by Uglúk, are shown to be physically different from the regular Orcs of Sauron. They are taller and have more human-like proportions while the latter are shorter and have longer arms (according to the description of Grishnákh). They also grudgingly tolerate the sunlight better. The Uruk-hai are different from most of the "Northerners", who came down from the Misty Mountains. These are said to be smaller than Grishnákh, who is "a short crook-legged creature".
Some of the Northerners, called "larger and bolder Northerners", stayed with Saruman's Uruk-hai when most of the Northern Orcs deserted. The deserters, "flagging in the rays of the bright sun", were later overtaken by the party of the Uruk-hai, showing differing tolerance to the sunlight.
Orcs served Morgoth in Angband and Sauron in Mordor. By the time of the War of the Ring, some served Saruman in Isengard. However, some Orcs seem to have worked independently. Before and during the time of The Hobbit, some Orcs had Mount Gundabad as their capital, the Orcs of the Misty Mountains were apparently ruled by one "Great Goblin", the former Dwarf-realm of Moria was held by orcs under one Azog and then his son Bolg, and one Golfimbul had led the orcs of Mount Gram in a foray into the Shire.
Tolkien does not elaborate on Orc culture and customs. Orcs know some form of healing arts (as the Orc-band apply harsh but effective Orkish medicine to Merry's injuries while he is in their captivity). Also their armour, though inferior to that of Elves and Dwarves, is serviceable. Orcs often use poisoned blades (as Aragorn observes while inspecting a wound received by Sam) and arrows (as they use on Isildur). They like to sing horrible songs (as in The Hobbit). The Goblins of the Misty Mountains were a smaller breed of Orc, and invented horrid machines used to torture and kill things. In some texts, Tolkien suggests that after the fall of Morgoth, some of his Orcs set up petty kingdoms of their own.
Tolkien indicates that Orcs are "always hungry". Orcs eat all manner of flesh, including men and horses, and there are frequent hints of cannibalism among Orcs. Grishnákh, leader of the Mordor Orcs, accuses Saruman's Uruks of eating Orc-flesh, which they angrily deny. In Cirith Ungol, Gorbag suggests that Frodo (recently poisoned by Shelob) should "go in the pot"; Shagrat indicates that Gorbag could be "for the pot" for making such a suggestion. Shagrat threatens to eat a disobedient orc, and after killing Gorbag he licks his blood from the blade.
The Orcs had no language of their own, merely a pidgin of many various languages. However, individual tribes developed dialects that differed so widely that Westron, often with a crude accent, was used as a common language. A few words of the Black Speech are common among Orcs: ghâsh ("fire"), sharkû ("old man", leading to Saruman's nickname "Sharkey"), snaga ("slave"), and Uruk ("orc"). Another Orkish word is tark ("Man of Gondor") from Westron and ultimately Quenya tarkil.
When Sauron returned to power in Mordor in the Third Age, Black Speech was used by the captains of his armies and by his servants in Barad-dûr. A substantial sample of debased Black Speech/Orkish can be found in The Two Towers, where Grishnákh of Mordor curses Uglúk of Isengard:
Uglúk u bagronk sha pushdug Saruman-glob búbhosh skai!
In The Peoples of Middle-earth, Tolkien gives the translation: "Uglúk to the cesspool, sha! the dungfilth; the great Saruman-fool, skai!". However, in a note published in Vinyar Tengwar he gives an alternative translation: "Uglúk to the dung-pit with stinking Saruman-filth, pig-guts, gah!"
Alexandre Nemirovsky speculates that Tolkien may have drawn upon the language of the ancient Hittites and Hurrians for Black Speech and Orkish.
The origin of Orcs
The origin of Orcs is an open question. Tolkien tried out a few different origins for his Orcs throughout his life but died before he could fully revise The Silmarillion with his final view on their origins and nature. Tolkien's Orc origin ideas were published posthumously in The Silmarillion, with other versions of events appearing later in The History of Middle Earth.
In Tolkien's writings, evil is not capable of independent creation, making it unlikely that the Vala Morgoth, who was the first to produce them, could create them from nothing.
No female Orcs are ever mentioned by Tolkien in any publication. However, in the published Silmarillion it is stated that Orcs "had life and multiplied after the manner of the Children of Ilúvatar", implying that they exist; in The Hobbit the Orc Bolg is the son of one Azog, while Gollum is described as having eaten a young Goblin-imp (Goblins often being synonymous with orcs) shortly before he first met Bilbo (which seems to be alluded to in The Lord of the Rings movie when Gollum goes on (with himself) about how unpleasant-tasting orcs are and that sweet Hobbit meat would suit Shelob better).
In an unpublished letter, written in 1963 to a Mrs. Munsby (and auctioned in 2002 at Sotheby's), Tolkien confirmed that female Orcs did exist. He wrote:
"There must have been orc-women. But in stories that seldom if ever see the Orcs except as soldiers of armies in the service of the evil lords we naturally would not learn much about their lives. Not much was known."
Compare this with Tolkien's more thorough explanation of the existence of Dwarf-women, given in the Appendix. Dwarf-women seldom leave their underground cities, and are not encountered as frontline soldiers in war, but that does not mean they do not exist.