On Roundworld, "Orc" is a word used to refer to various races of tough and warlike humanoid creatures in various fantasy settings. Orcs are often portrayed as misshapen humanoids who are brutal, warmongering, and sadistic. See the annotations below for further information here.
They are the creation of JRR Tolkien: greater than goblins and harder to kill. They are of human shape, of varying size but always smaller than Men, ugly, filthy, with a taste for human flesh. They are fanged, bow-legged and long-armed, and some have dark skin as if burned. They are portrayed as miserable, crafty and vicious beings. Tolkien conceived many possible origins for them (canonicity is uncertain), but most of them see them as corrupted from a natural creature by the dark lord Morgoth, broken and twisted into his evil soldiers; most commonly known is the theory of corrupted Elves, as it was used in the posthumously published The Silmarillion.
On the Disc, however, although the popular conception is of orcs as we understand them, the only one we've met so far in the entire canon is Mr Nutt, who is the protagonist of Unseen Academicals, during the course of which he explodes all these myths. He is intelligent, well-read and capable of feats of love and poetry.
The Orcs seem to have been used as intelligent weapons by a sinister force just as they are in The Lord of the Rings: they fight with ferocity, so long as a guiding 'will' (e.g., Morgoth or Sauron) compels/directs them. In some places, Tolkien describes Orcs as mainly being battle fodder. Dr Hix has a way of seeing the creatures in battle and they are terrible and deadly, but there are whips driving them on. It is not necessarily an inherent evil but a forced one.
In a twist on Tolkien's vision of their begetting, whilst the common view is that they are warped goblins, Lord Vetinari comments that they must have been bred from men, because only mankind has the wanton capacity for such evil evinced by the orcs in the Dark Wars that enslaved large areas.
They were presumed wiped out, although there have been rumblings of some new colonies/nests and the attempted genocide of them. Vetinari asks Nutt if he would go with his erstwhile rescuer, Pastor Oats into the heart of the Evil Empire (shades again of Sauron?), and bring them into the light. It seems an enormous task, but Nutt accepts. Whether we ever hear that tale is in the lap of the Gods.
It is an unusual development for the Disc, because there have always been enough non-human races for humans to fight up 'til now. Early in the canon it was Gnolls taking the place of orcs in the "traditional" fantasy way, and there's always goblins, trolls and the like.
Etymology of the word "orc":
The modern use of the English word "orc" to denote a race of evil, humanoid creatures begins with JRR Tolkien. His earliest elvish dictionaries include the entry "Ork (orq-) monster, ogre, demon" together with "orqindi ogresse." Tolkien sometimes used the plural form orqui in his early texts. He sometimes, particularly in The Hobbit, used the word "goblin" instead of "orc" to describe the same type of creature, with the smaller cave-dwelling variety that lived in the Misty Mountains being referred to as "goblin" and the larger ones elsewhere referred to as "orcs".
Old English influence:
The word "Orc" is Old English for "Foreigner, Monster, Demon" and was used to refer to the Normans invading the English in 1066. Middle Earth in Old English was the place between heaven and hell where humans dwell.
Tolkien's own statements about the real-world origins of his use of the word "orc" are as follows:
- "the word is, as far as I am concerned, actually derived from Old English orc 'demon', but only because of its phonetic suitability"
- "I originally took the word from Old English orc (Beowulf 112 orc-neas and the gloss orc = þyrs ('ogre'), heldeofol ('hell-devil')). This is supposed not to be connected with modern English orc, ork, a name applied to various sea-beasts of the dolphin order."
Possible Games Workshop influence:
The British-owned and originated miniature wargames company Games Workshop has long promoted a pair of settings, Warhammer Fantasy and its science-fiction descendant Warhammer 40,0000, in which exists a race of orcs (spelt with a K in the sci-fi game) who are biologically engineered super-soldiers, insanely hard to kill, extremely strong, and generally quite dangerous. Furthermore, the culture of these orcs is based upon British football hooligan 'culture', with Cockney-flavored racial language, chanting warcries and general antics. The fact that the orcs of the Discworld are biologically engineered super-soldiers, and the fact that they first receive proper detailing in a book about football culture and hooliganism, certainly invokes comparisons. And of course there's GW's Blood Bowl game, a fantastic parody of American Football where Orks are held to have the body size, temperament and general intelligence of American sporting jocks.