F 1 D 0 -- 2001 12 31 at 12 01 Orcs.

AT THE MARGIN (excerpt)
Vol. 2, Issue 12 (Whole Issue #26) +++ December 31, 2001

Details, many bizarre and obscure, from the world of books.


Gerry and I go out to the movies only rarely these days, ever since
the theaters started showing commercials. But I have a real fondness
for going to the movies on Christmas Day, and I got her to agree to
go with me to see THE LORD OF THE RINGS. We went to the early show,
and there were about twelve people in the theater, and there was no
line for popcorn. That's the great thing about Christmas Day at the
movies. THE LORD OF THE RINGS is entertaining, if a little tiresome
in the butt, which must remain in one place waiting for the movie to
end so you can get it off the seat.
     Among the more fearsome creatures in the movie are the Orcs --
brutal, underworld creatures that are ridiculously easy to enlist as
an army if you're associated with the forces of darkness. They are
apelike and extremely ugly. If you do a Google search on Orc, you
will learn that they are also a mainstay of computer gaming. I don't
know if the gamers simply appropriated Tolkien's creation or if they
came up with name orc independently. But I am quite sure Tolkien, the
THE CRITICS, did not take the name out of the air.
     The word originally appeared in English in the sixteenth century
as orc or ork, with additional spellings orque, orke, or orch. They
weren't so strict about spelling in the sixteenth century. Its
precise meaning was a type of cetacean. In 1520, the writer L.
Andrews, in a work called NOBLE LYFE, wrote, "Orchun is a monster of
the se.. & he is the mortal ennemye to the balene, & tereth asonder
the bely of the balene." In the eighteenth century, Linnaeus used a
form of the word to classify the mammal in question as Delphinus
orca. The creature is now known as Orcinus orca. The orca's public
relations people have pretty much got us all shifted away from the
name killer whale.
     But the word orc has a dual tradition. In Latin, Orcus was
another name for Hades, the realm of the dead. And at about the same
time the word was acquiring more precision in describing a type of
whale, it had a secondary, more vague meaning. In this less precise
usage, it meant a generic monster of indiscriminate appetites. In
1598, it appeared in a book by one Sylvester: "Insatiate Orque, that
even at one repast Almost all Creatures in the World would waste."
Then in 1656 in ZARA by S. Holland: "Who at one Stroak didst pare
away three Heads from off the shoulders of an Orke, begotten by an
     In this second tradition, the word has come down to us in the
present day as ogre.
     The word apparently got tested out in English four or five
centuries before the first recorded usages in the OXFORD ENGLISH
DICTIONARY. In BEOWULF, it appears as orcneas, which is the plural
form for a type of monster, or perhaps a sea monster. The singular
has been rendered as orken, although I don't think the singular form
appears anywhere in BEOWULF (I don't read Old English and don't even
understand its alphabet, so I haven't tried to check the original).
     But in the late fifteenth century, about the time it was
becoming an English word, it appeared in the Italian poem, ORLANDO
FURIOSO by Ariosto, as the name of a sea monster. (The hero, Rogero,
rescues the fair Angelica from Orc while riding his horse Hippogrif.)
     Now here's something really interesting. For linguists, the most
conspicuous characteristic of Celtic languages is the loss of the p
sound from the original Indo-European. The Latin porcus (pig) turns
up in Gaelic as orc.
     The poems of William Blake's Prophetic books (which appeared in
the 1790s) work out a complex mythology about the contention of the
three forces of reason, imagination, and rebellion. The spirit of
rebellion has the name Orc.
     So today, the word's "legitimate" English form is orca, the name
we give to the whale. Otherwise, it has a number of fanciful usages
and it may come to our language from several different places, and it
actually seems to have been reinvented a couple times.
     If you're writing a book or designing a game that features orcs,
you may want to consult a lawyer. Tolkien Enterprises licenses
"fanciful names and/or characters" from the works of J.R.R. Tolkien
(see http://www.tolkien-ent.com/new/index.html). The word would seem
to be in the public domain, but you never know, where lawyers are
     At BBC News (http://news.bbc.co.uk/hi/english/entertainment/
film/newsid_1692000/1692205.stm -- Note the line break in the URL;
cut and paste to get the whole thing in your browser's address field)
there is an amusing story about an extra who worked as an orc on the
     Apparently, in writing THE HOBBIT, Tolkien used the term goblin
for the creature that in later books becomes the orc. This page
(http://www.daimi.aau.dk/~bouvin/tolkien/orcandgoblin.html) says that
he recovered from what might have essentially been an error by saying
that "goblin" was a slang term used by the hobbits for orcs.
     If you're building an orc army, this page has an orc name
generator: http://www.ezlink.com/~tscott/gobbonames.html. When I used
it, it gave me the names dumskin, pipipuke, wingork, kunstrong, and
puliggy. You can have them if you want. I'm not going to be building
an orc army any time soon.

AT THE MARGIN is published monthly, but is otherwise charmingly
erratic. It aims for release sometime during each calendar month.

(c) Copyright 2001 Floyd Kemske

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