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Are orcs and goblins really the same in The Hobbit and LotR, and where does it say that? Are they variant sub-races or something, explaining the different physical attributes? Or is my assumption they were different from the different terminology in the Hobbit and LotR novels, and then reinforced by a non-canon interpretation by Jackson in his films?

I recently re-read and then watched the movie of The Hobbit. It made me do some research on Azog the Defiler, as he was in the movie but wasn't in the book itself but in various other Tolkien-bits. I saw that his son Bolg then led the goblins of Moria, which seemed odd, and then I stumbled across something that really confused me, which is the much-wiki'ed claim that orcs and goblins are the same thing.

I had never heard that before, and I read The Hobbit originally some 30 years ago and then again a couple times over the years, and Lord of the Rings at least twice since. It never really crossed my mind that they weren't separate kinds of humanoids (and in fact I was a little griped at them inserting orcs rather than goblins as the foes in the Hobbit movie). It seems odd, especially since there's the whole 'the goblins won't go out during the day' thing, but in both LotR and at least the film Hobbit, the orcs seem all large and in charge during the day and certainly seem physically different from goblins in all the representations I've seen.

I know there are the Uruk-hai which are even more buff and light-tolerant orcs, but the goblins, both in my book recollections and in their depictions in the movies, seem different even from rank and file orcs. In the films they spider climb all over the walls and ceilings (both in Moria and in the Great Goblin's place - if orcs could do that the siege of Helm's Deep would have been over in ~30 seconds) and unwillingness to, even enraged, go out during the day when even the non-Uruk orcs in the Hobbit film are tooling around on wolfback at noontime. I know hobbits are referred to both as "hobbits" and "halflings" by different races, but the references to orcs and goblins don't seem to be split in a logical way where one could claim they're just different words for the same thing...

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Maybe your confusion is because of the Uruk-hai, a large Orc (or Goblin :P ) breed which tolerates sunlight? This is explained in LOTR. We also tend to see a lot of the Uruks, since they kidnap the Hobbits, which might be why you remember them so strongly... – Andres F. Jan 4 '13 at 5:00
Even in the Hobbit movie, the goblins won't go out after the dwarves in the light, but the orcs are gallivanting about on wolf-back freely during the day, and the spider-climbing goblins of Moria (LotR) and in Hobbit seem to have little to do with even the non-Uruk orcs of LotR. (Jackson not Tolkien, but seems to bear out differentiation). – mxyzplk Jan 4 '13 at 14:31
@mxyzplk If the movies imply a difference between orcs and goblins, then the movies are wrong. Or rather, they differ from the books. – Kate Ebneter Jan 4 '13 at 22:18
So I don't know enough about Tolkien's works to post this as an answer (having never actually read any of them), but reading Wikipedia's Middle-earth terms for Orcs, it seems almost 100% consistent if "goblin" is the superclass (all Orcs are Goblins, not all Goblins are Orcs), and that The Hobbit is from Bilbo's perspective - who had not seen an Orc/Goblin/etc before, so he's using the overall term more often than others would. – Izkata Jan 5 '13 at 0:39
@SimonHibbs Izkata's comment is well-reasoned, but unfortunately doesn't apply to LOTR. Same with SF: "goblinoid" is not a term used by Tolkien, and this question is about LOTR, not about Warhammer or Dungeons & Dragons! Tolkien explicitly tells us "Goblin" is the English word for the fictional term "Orc". That's quite a definitive answer! – Andres F. Jan 21 '13 at 16:51

15 Answers 15

up vote 56 down vote accepted

The answer is that it depends on when in time Tolkien wrote the story. Various stories depict them as clearly different creatures, while others depict them as being the same.

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.

And here again there are two conflicting definitions from two separate books of the Elvish language:

The Quenya Lexicon from approximately 1915 defines Orc as meaning "monster, demon", and the Gnomish Lexicon dated 1917 defines Orc as "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

To summarize: they are, as of right now, the same creature. They were not originally intended to be, Tolkien later changed his mind. There is direct evidence of this, foremost is that his own son clearly says that he had originally intended them to be different.

-- Wikipedia, with good citations.


The asker revised the question, and asks now "Are they the same thing in LotR and The Hobbit." To answer, I'm going to quote Gandalf in The Hobbit:

"Before you could get round Mirkwood in the North you would be right among the slopes of the Grey Mountains, and they are simply stiff with goblins, hobgoblins, and orcs of the worst description." -- Gandalf

Again, here we have the answer depending on when Tolkien wrote the stories, as I said above. At the time of writing The Hobbit, Tolkien had considered them different, based on this and statements like this. In The Lord of the Rings there are statements to indicate that they are the same.

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For Tolkien, Goblin and Orc are two "translations" of the same word.

From the Harper Collins 2006 paperback edition of The Hobbit, Author's Note:

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 to our orc, ork, applied to sea-animals of dolphin-kind.

So we can draw two conclusions:

  1. The right word is unmistakably Orc.
  2. An Orc is not a "larger goblin"; the right English word for "large Orc" is hobgoblin (according to the Professor, of course).
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At that time, this is what Tolkein said. Throughout the years his stance on this appeared to change, however... So there's not really a definitive answer. – Nathan C. Tresch Jan 4 '13 at 5:09
@NathanC.Tresch On the contrary: For The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, the answer is that they are unequivocally the same. – Kate Ebneter Jan 4 '13 at 8:56
@KateEbneter Well, if they are the same in The Hobbit, Prof. Tolkien didn't know it... See the edit to my answer. – Nathan C. Tresch Jan 4 '13 at 20:51
@NathanC.Tresch I disagree. Tolkien himself says so in the Author's Note from The Hobbit that I quoted. He explicitly says they are one and the same! It's just that Goblin is an English word, while Orc is a word from a fictional language. This is not my interpretation... Tolkien explicitly says so! – Andres F. Jan 4 '13 at 21:12
@NathanC.Tresch That quote doesn't support the notion that they are not the same species, merely that there are variations. I could say the same thing about horses and ponies, for example, or various breeds of dogs. I am unable to recall anything in Tolkien's writing that indicates that by the time he wrote The Hobbit he considered goblins and orcs to be distinct. – Kate Ebneter Jan 4 '13 at 22:21

I'm going to primarily confine myself to the Hobbit and contemporary texts for this, just so that there's no doubt.

First of all, and as I mentioned in a comment, there is the name of the sword Orcrist, which Tolkien translates as "Goblin Cleaver". What may not be immediately apparent is that "Goblin Cleaver" is actually a direct translation (from Sindarin, which was at the time "Gnomish") of Orcrist.

There are two elements in the name, with "Orc" clearly translating as "Goblin" and thus leaving -rist as "Cleaver".

This translation of -rist is actually quite old, going back at least to the Etymologies of the 1930s, which are published in HoME5 and are contemporaneous with the Hobbit:

RIS- Cf. KIRIS; cut, cleave.


KIRIS- cut ... N(oldorin) crist a cleaver, sword.

Noldorin crist is decisive here: Orc + crist = Orcrist.

Orcrist therefore translates as "Goblin Cleaver" and "Goblin" is therefore a translation of "Orc". No less an authority than Master Elrond confirms this:

Orcrist, the Goblin-cleaver in the ancient tongue of Gondolin

(As an aside: Glamdring "Foe Hammer" uses an element from another name for Orcs, Glam, from "Glamhoth", "yelling horde", so the use of Elvish languages here is consistent rather than casual.)

Secondly, there is Elrond's further statement that:

They were made in Gondolin for the Goblin-wars.

Now, Gondolin was a sealed city, and the only time that it's army ever came out was for the Battle of Unnumbered Tears. The Fall of Gondolin was unexpected (though prophesised) so it's too much of a stretch to imagine anyone forging swords in explicit anticipation of that.

So it's quite clear that the "Goblin-wars" which Elrond refers to here were the Battle of Unnumbered Tears, and by emendation to the Quenta Noldorinwa the later story of the foundation of Gondolin before the Battle had already emerged by this time (see HoME4).

However, every contemporary account of the Battle mentions "Orcs", not "Goblins" as the primary foe, so again it's definitive - the "Goblin-wars" of the Hobbit were a great Battle against Orcs.

Finally, and again going back to the Quenta Noldorinwa of the 1930s, we have the following in an early passage:

The hordes of the Orcs he made of stone, but their hearts of hatred. Glamhoth, people of hate, the Gnomes have called them. Goblins may they be called, but in ancient days they were strong and cruel and fell.

Again it's clear; in contemporary texts Orcs and Goblins were the same thing.

Is it valid to use the Quenta Noldorinwa in support of this? I believe so, yes. The Necromancer was always explicitly Sauron, even in the earliest drafts of the Hobbit ("Beren and Tinúviel broke his power" - HotH, as well as the "dark forest" he fled to in the early Fall of Numenor), mention of the 3 kindreds of the Elves, Gondolin, use of the Gnomish language, etc offer sufficient proof that the Silmarillion tales have a heavier influence on the Hobbit than is commonly recognised.

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So what would you say accounts for the seeming differences in orc and goblin depiction, simply that goblins are degenerate orcs? – mxyzplk Nov 3 '13 at 15:57
Degenerate Orcs are called "Orcs" and "goblin" is just a translation, end-of-story. The Hobbit is written in a certain style and is feigned to be Bilbo's memoirs (it's style is quite consistent with Bilbo's speech patterns in LotR), so don't take it as a literal description; the seeming differences are just that: seeming. – user8719 Nov 3 '13 at 16:40
+1 Well supported answer! – Andres F. Nov 6 '13 at 16:34

I think you need to bear in mind that The Hobbit was not originally part of Tolkien's legendarium, but was, essentially, a take on classic fairy stories. As a tale for children the use of goblin would be consistent, as I'd imagine most children would have some idea of what the word meant as opposed to orc. Similarly the elves seem closer to the fae (fairies) than the elves we see in Lord of the Rings and elsewhere.

It wasn't until he started writing the Lord of the Rings that Tolkien decided that The Hobbit was set in the same universe as the Silmarillion, at which point it would make sense that goblins and orcs are the same thing.

As for goblins (The Hobbit) not liking daylight and orcs (LotR) not caring, that's not actually right. The orcs in LotR dislike the sun, but the uruk-hai don't care. This passage is a conversation between the uruk-hai Uglúk and some orcs from the Misty Mountains:

'But what are we going to do at sunrise?' said some of the Northeners.

'Go on running,' said Uglúk. 'What do you think? Sit on the grass and wait for the Whiteskins to join the picnic?'

'But we can't run in the sunlight.'

'You'll run with me behind you,' said Uglúk. 'Run! Or you'll never see your beloved holes again. By the White Hand! What's the use of sending out mountain-maggots on a trip, only half trained. Run, curse you! Run while night lasts!'

(The Two Towers, book 3, chapter 3)

And in case you doubt the "mountain maggots" are orcs here's what Éomer reports after killing the entire band:

'We found none but Orcs.'

(The Two Towers, book 3 chapter 2)

Also, in the chapter The Bridge of Khazad-Dûm the fellowship escape the orcs by

being on the "wrong side" of a burning fissure across the great hallway. Presumably if the orcs could climb the walls like spiders then they could easily get past it but it's only the balrog, who walks straight through, that can chase them.

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You should check out the History of the Hobbit ( books which make it quite clear that the Hobbit actually was well-integrated with the main mythology from the outset. – user8719 Jan 4 '13 at 16:55
@mh01 Really? That's not at all how I read that! My take from reading The History of The Hobbit was that Tolkien threw in various references to his Legendarium merely as a way to give it some depth — for example, there's clearly confusion between the Elf-king who becomes Thranduil and the whole story of Thingol and Doriath — and only when The Lord of the Rings clearly became a part of the Legendarium in the course of writing did he drag The Hobbit into it as well. – Kate Ebneter Jan 4 '13 at 23:57
@mh01 Right from that Wikipedia page, it says the exact opposite of what you assert: "According to him, The Hobbit was not originally a part of the Middle-earth universe and was attached to his father's earlier, far darker legendarium only superficially, although the existence of The Hobbit forever altered the legendarium." – Izkata Jan 5 '13 at 0:28
Everything I've ever read, which wasn't second-hand on the 'net, claims that The Hobbit was integrated later. I will admit that I've not read too much on the subject, though. – Alan Jan 5 '13 at 13:06
Sauron's orcs, Saruman's uruks, and also "hill maggots" from the Misty Mountains. – TRiG Jan 5 '13 at 18:12

If you noticed The Hobbit had Goblins but not Orcs. Then LOTR had Orcs right where the Goblins had been in The Hobbit and had no Goblins per se. That tells me that Tolkien just decided to change the name from goblin to orc. Also notice that in The Hobbit the sword Orcist is called the "Goblin Cleaver". So Tolkien had probably already decided that orc was another term for goblin in The Hobbit. At most one may have been a more general term than the other.

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In answer to Joe C. Your riposte has merit in and of itself however, I would have you consider that the name of the sword may have been, first and foremost, intended for the Elves most hated enemies a.k.a. Orcs but, due to the times in which it was employed, gained renown and a nick name fighting against many other foes, a.k.a. Goblins, due to it's effectiveness in diminishing their population. To the Elves and Orcs (who were once Elves) it was Orcrist, to the Goblins it carried the infamous name of "Goblin Cleaver" due to it's aforementioned ability to kick their pale asses. Another indicator – user19392 Nov 3 '13 at 7:51
@user19392 Welcome to Stackexchange. I've converted your answer to a comment, as it looks more like a comment on Joe's answer. If you want to resubmit another answer please do but phrase it as such. Thanks! P.S you can add your own comments when you have enough reputation. – AncientSwordRage Nov 3 '13 at 11:54
@user19392 - Goblin Cleaver wasn't a nickname, it was a direct translation of Orcrist; "Orc" = "Goblin", "-rist" = "cut/cleave", and the latter part goes back to the 1930s Etymologies and is also seen in Imladris. It's nickname was Biter. Tolkien's use of "Goblin Cleaver" as the translation actually supports "Orcs = Goblins = Orcs". – user8719 Nov 3 '13 at 12:52

For the most part, goblins are smaller orcs/orcs are larger goblins. In the Hobbit, most mentions are of goblins, while in the Lord of the Rings, most mentions are of orcs. In the Book of Lost Tales and other earlier writings both terms appear, and are often used synonymously.

In The Two Towers, the Uruk-hai are described briefly as goblins:

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.

As far as the different types of 'orcs', there appear to be several in the actual novels:

  • Goblins, which were smaller and generally from the areas around the misty mountains
  • Orcs, which appear to be primarily servants of Sauron, slightly larger than Goblins
  • Uruk-hai, which are bred by Saruman and are roughly human sized and proportioned
  • Half-orcs or goblin-men, also bred by Saruman, who endure light better. Little is known about them.

So yes, goblins and orcs are variant sub-races of the larger orc-kind. But confusion still arises based on the inconsistent usage in the legendarium.

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The text you quoted from The Two Towers actually supports the view that Goblin and Orc can be used interchangeably. In any case, since "goblin-soldiers" in the excerpt is used to refer to Uruk-hai, the largest breed of Orcs, it proves "goblin" is not a "small Orc" :) – Andres F. Jan 4 '13 at 4:44
I thought Uruk-hai came out of both Mordor and Isengard (i.e. they were a breed of Orc, not something Saruman created). – Joe Casadonte Jan 4 '13 at 13:55
@Joe Casadonte - The Uruks (more general), were larger, stronger orcs. The Uruk-hai were specifically Saruman's breed IIRC – The Fallen Jan 4 '13 at 14:09
@SSumner I think Joe is right. Uruk-hai means "Orc-folk". "Uruks" is an anglicization of "Uruk-hai". Uruk-hai came from both Mordor and Isengard (though the ones we see in LOTR come from Isengard, IIRC). – Andres F. Jan 4 '13 at 14:12
The Uruk-hai we see in the Two Towers are from Saruman, but we also see them in the Return of the King in Mordor; Shagrat & Gorbag's gangs are regular orcs and Uruk-hais fighting (I forget which is which; Shagrat's are Uruk-Hai, I think). – Joe Casadonte Jan 5 '13 at 14:39

Here are the differences between Orcs, Goblin and Uruk-hai. It starts with the knowledge of their creation in the Silmarillion i.e. the three parts of the whole tale are: (The Silmarillion, The Hobbit, then, The Lord of the Rings; 1st,2nd,3rd Ages; We "Men" being in and ruling the 4th age). The original Dark Lord "Melkor/Morgoth", who became banished from the world, created the Orcs from captured tortured and mutilated Elves, in the 1st Age. He (Morgoth) was the Master of Sauron, who was his lieutenant (The Dark lord in LOTR). The Goblins, (as far as I can tell) are Cave Orcs, i.e. Orcs that over the ages of living in caves, developed an aversion to sunlight. The Uruk-hai as explained by Saruman the White in LOTR are created from Orcs, mixed with Goblin-Men. Thus their skin turned black when they went out from Saruman into the daylight after their creation but because of their Orc and man genes they possess, the sun does not destroy them. This is the understanding that I've come to after long studying the Histories and Lore of this beloved mythology. Let us also not forget that there are other books ( ‎Unfinished Tales - ‎The History of Middle-earth - The Children of Hurin - The History of Middle-Earth, etc...) and very insightful appendices to each. Thank you, I hope this information helps.

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Please note the Uruk-hai created from Orcs "mixed with Goblin-men", "as explained by Saruman", only happens in the movies by Peter Jackson. Same with the actual depiction of Uruks growing from vats. – Andres F. Dec 16 '13 at 15:26
In the LOTR books the Uruk-Hai are a cross breed between Orcs and Men. – Joe C Aug 15 '15 at 23:46

I believe, as with many races and cultures here on the real earth, people tend to pigeon hole groups of people into the same slot just because of outward similarities when in fact they have nothing to do with each other. Tolkien, I believe, (with an eye on making his world believable), allowed the creatures of Middle Earth to suffer from the same racial bias and ignorance and consider all things Orcish, Goblinish or simply different (depending on their cultural dialect) as being one and the same. Having read the Silmarillion, Unfinished Tales, The Hobbit, TLOTR and other related books countless times I have always come away with the sense that Tolkien intended that they should be regarded as separate races. He never says goblins were once Elves, but does clearly state, through other characters, that Orcs were once Elves and that, to me (along with clear cut characteristic differences) ,is the definitive connection.

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Unfortunately, that Orcs "were once Elves" is not "clearly stated". Or rather, there are contradictory interpretations also by Tolkien. Regardless, if you take Word of God as the final word, then you should also accept his foreword from The Hobbit were he explicitly states "Orc" and "Goblin" are one and the same :) – Andres F. Nov 6 '13 at 16:32
See also Nomenclature of the Lord of the Rings: "Orc... was translated 'goblin' in The Hobbit" - further evidence and this is an explicit statement from Tolkien to translators in a work with high canon value. – user8719 Dec 6 '13 at 0:19
It was the Orcs and Goblins who were ignorant, not the Elves and Hobbits. – Joe C Jan 14 '14 at 3:14

That "Orc" means "goblin" is shown many times in LotR and The Hobbit. Several individuals are described both as "Orc" and as "goblin". These include Azog ("Azog the Goblin"; "a great Orc with a huge iron-clad head, and yet agile and strong"), Grishnakh (described as both an Orc and a goblin in "The Uruk-hai") and (almost certainly) Ugluk ("a large black orc" and then what is almost certainly his head - and one of his Uruk-hai followers' heads if not - "a great goblin head").

Then we have the description of Uruk-hai corpses as "goblin-soldiers of greater stature".

All of those examples show that goblins and Orcs are synonymous, and that there is no distinction based on size: Azog, Grishnakh ("short" but "very broad")and the Isengard Uruk-hai are all "goblins" and larger-than-normal Orcs.

On top of this, George MacDonald Fraser (author of the Flashman books) describes in his memoirs how he and his fellow sub-editors at the Glasgow Herald wrote to Tolkien to ask whether Orcs and goblins were identical. Tolkien confirmed that they were.

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Awesome that someone asked Tolkien directly! Can you find a verbatim passage? I tried googling but didn't get to the actual source. – Andres F. Mar 9 '15 at 22:47

I've seen and read the back and forth and, of course, read the books and the foreword in the Hobbit. Best interpretation I can come to is a macro vs. micro interpretation. A "goblin" is the equivalent of saying "human." It refers to a race of beings beating certain universal characteristics. Yet an "Orc" is the racial class similar to "Caucasian." Just as there are different "races" within the human race that have a subset of different characteristics on a micro level, overall, they still belong to the same macro race. In that instance, the term "goblin" could apply to the goblin-town goblins as well as those in Moria, the Orcs, and even the Uruk-hai. For my interpretation, this solves many questions. It even explains why Orc is capitalized (as is Uruk-hai) yet goblin is not. We capitalize Caucasian and Latin and Nubian, yet do not capitalize human.

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not bad for a 1st answer though it sound more like your opinion about this question – Rocket Jan 27 '15 at 1:09

Then there's Rankin-Bass' animated adaptation of "Return of the King" in which Samwise states:

"Orcs in the tower. Old Bilbo called them Goblins, but whatever the name, I despise the vile creatures."

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Yes, orcs and goblins are the same. Sources include Untold Tales, The Silmarillion, Appendix A of Return of the King, and even letters from Tolkien. Tolkien only made a distinction in a handful of older writings and coalesced later around orc being one word that encompasses the race of goblins. Within orcs, you had the larger Uruk and the smaller weaker snaga but they were both orcs/goblins.

Forget Azog, he died over a hundred years before the The Hobbit.

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Orc and Goblin clearly refer to the same species. In The Hobbit Gandalf warned Bilbo that traveling north of Mirkwood would take them close to the Grey Mountains full of "goblins, hob goblins, and orcs of the worst description". That seems like a catalog of various races, ethnic groups, or subspecies of the goblin/orc species.

But since various individuals are called both orcs and goblins and others are just called goblins or orcs, it is hard to tell if orc and goblin are totally equivalent, or one is a subcategory of the other, or if they are two different categories that sometimes overlap making some persons members of both groups, or whatever.

What seems certain is that in The Hobbit members of that species are usually called goblins, in Lord of the Rings members of that species are usually called orcs, and in stories of the Elder days Tolkien tended to replace goblin with orc over time.

In World War II Americans used "Jap" and "Nip" to refer to the Japanese. British soldiers on the Western front in World War I called their enemy both Germans and Huns. British in World War II could speak of German soldiers, Nazi Soldiers, Germans, and Nazis, even though they sometimes fought Axis troops allied to Germany, Germany had many non Germans in some German army units, and probably the majority of German soldiers were not members of the Nazi Party.

In the American West hostile warriors might be identified by nation, and/or tribe, and/or band, or as Indians, redskins, or as "Lo" or "Mr. Lo" from the poetic line: "Lo, the poor Indian,..."

So it is probable that Tolkien used both goblin and orc to avoid constantly using the same term for the enemy soldiers.

It is possible that sometimes Tolkien intended a distinction of some type between goblin and orc, but there is no proof that he ever did or what that hypothetical distinction or distinctions would have been.

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They are two different words for the same kind of creatures. "Orc" is the Elvish word, "goblin" is the English word, used by Tolkien to "translate" those tales for his English audience.

It's Peter Jackson's fault that people think of them as different creatures; in Tolkien's writings the two terms have always been used interchangeably.

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This may be a bit of a stretch, but anytime the term goblin is used it seems to refer to "independent" groups that live under the mountains. I think they are essentially the same thing, but this is perhaps one distinction which can be made.

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