By the early 17th century the term Uriankhai was a general Mongolian term for all the dispersed bands to the north-west, whether Samoyed, Turkic, or Mongolian in origin.

I was wondering if there was any link or inspiration for the name Uruk-Hai to the name for the dispersed bands of peoples from Mongolia? The only other allusion is the siege on Helm's Deep to the great wall of China, and though tenuous that and the similarity in the name has my curiosity piqued.

Now, there is some etymology for the name Uruk-hai

The name "Uruk-hai" has the element Uruk, which is a Black Speech word related to Orc, related to the word "Urko" in Tolkien's invented language of Quenya. The element hai means "folk", so "Uruk-hai" is "Orc-folk".

But it's not to say that the idea of Uruk-Hai as being a group of 'barbarians' (orcs) storming a large fortification couldn't hgave been some basis for the use of the word Uruk-hai with meaning added on after wards.

Is there any fictional etymology to go with Uruk-Hai, a word or group that inspired the name or was it simply a consequence of Tolkien developing the Quenyan language and then assigning a name form that?


In letter 210 Tolkien does describe Orcs as

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.

However elsewhere he consistently describes the word Orc as being of old English derivation. According to Tolkien in letter 144,

the word [Orcs] is as far as I am concerned actually derived from Old English orc 'demon', but only because of its phonetic suitability

This usage of Orc then flowed through to his invented Elven and Black Speech languages, with roots invented accordingly - ruk, meaning fear and horror, derives to orko as the Quenyan word for Orc. This then informs uruk, the Black Speech term for Orc.

There is no indication that Tolkien considered any Mongolian in his invention of languages, in contrast there are a number of references indicating his consideration of both English and Finnish as sources for some of his work (probably informed by his study of both these languages).

  • 6
    By the way, the Helm's Deep --> Great Wall of China link is really pushing it! ;) – dlanod Apr 17 '12 at 21:06
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    An interesting thing to note, though, is that the word "orc" was often used in its original English to mean "foreigner." For example, in "Middle Earth" (UK), the English scathingly called the Norman invaders "orcs" – BenjaminRH Apr 18 '12 at 2:18
  • any similarity to the Japanese "gaijin" (foreigner/barbarian)? – zzzzBov Apr 18 '12 at 3:47
  • @BenjaminRH In one of his letters (I think; otherwise HoME) he states that as far as he's concerned however orc is either ME or OE (I can't recall which) for demon (I believe it was). I'm pretty sure it was a letter though. I also think it'd be better if the answer stressed the words 'repulsive versions of ...' but that's me. Ha. I didn't read the answer and the answer actually states (in the same wording too) what I was getting at. But I already typed this and I have the other point so I'll keep it. – Pryftan Jan 17 '18 at 15:38

In Letter #297 Tolkien is rather scathing of attempts to find real-world sources for his nomenclature, but does admit:

I may mention two cases where I was not , at the time of making use of them, aware of 'borrowing', but where it is probable, but by no means certain, that the names were nonetheless 'echoes'. Erech , the place where Isildur set the covenant-stone. This of course fits the style of the predominantly Sindarin nomenclature of Gondor (or it would not have been used), as it would do historically, even if it was, as it is now convenient to suppose, actually a pre-Númenórean name of long-forgotten meaning. Since naturally, as one interested in antiquity and notably in the history of languages and 'writing', I knew and had read a good deal about Mesopotamia, I must have known Erech the name of that most ancient city. Nonetheless at the time of writing L.R. Book V chs. II and IX (originally a continuous narrative, but divided for obvious constructional reasons) and devising a legend to provide for the separation of Aragorn from Gandalf, and his disappearance and unexpected return, I was probably more influenced by the important element ER (in Elvish) = 'one, single, alone'. In any case the fact that Erech is a famous name is of no importance to The L.R. and no connexions in my mind or intention between Mesopotamia and the Númenóreans or their predecessors can be deduced.

He certainly didn't intend to borrow that word.

  • "I may mention two cases where I was not , at the time of making use of them, aware of 'borrowing', but where it is probable, but by no means certain, that the names were nonetheless 'echoes'." I imagine that the second case may have been the Ethopian city of Gondar. As a native of southeastern Pennsylvania I also suspected that Tolkien may have subconsciously taken the river Brandywine from real world geography. – M. A. Golding Aug 17 '15 at 2:44
  • Might mention that the modern nomenclature for the antique city of Erech follows Gilgamesh rather than the Bible, and calls it Uruk. (And of course the modern name for Mesopotamia itself is Iraq — generally believed to be etymologically connected to Uruk/Erech, although there do exist alternative possibilities.) – Quuxplusone Oct 14 '20 at 13:30

Tolkien certainly knew Brythonic - and the word "uruk" has more than a passing similarity to the word for werewolf (wolf-man) in that language: "uirokū". This word is also the Brythonic root of the name of Wroxeter (Viroconium or Uriconium, in Latin) - a city that lies 40 miles west of Tolkien's Birmingham home. It is very unlikely that he wasn't aware of the derivation of that name.

The origin of the phonetically similar word "orc" is well-attested to, but still rather debatable: Tolkien had revived an Old English word for demon, but one that was possibly also related to the French word "ogre" and/or derived from the Latin "orcus", meaning hell. Again, it would entirely fit in with Tolkien's intellectual interests for him to find or create connections between Celtic, Latin and Germanic languages and present "uruk" (or "uirokū") as one of a family of words that might include "orc" and "ogre"- even if in the non-fictional world their actual derivations cannot be nailed down.

  • Tolkien has stated he disagrees with the Latin root of "orcus". Stating in letters that Uruk is derived from the word orc. There is no evidence to suggest "Uirokū" was an inspiration of the word "uruk". – Edlothiad Jul 10 '17 at 22:05
  • Hmm... I haven't been able to find this comment by Tolkien where he says that Uruk is derived from Orc. Could you supply me with the full quote, please? – Nathan North Jul 11 '17 at 13:21
  • Not a problem, one second. – Edlothiad Jul 11 '17 at 13:54
  • For the derivation of Uruk, it's mentioned in Parma Eldalamberon #17 if you have access to that. It's also in Letter 144: “The name has the form orch (pl. yrch) in Sindarin and uruk in the Black Speech.” – Edlothiad Jul 11 '17 at 14:04
  • "Orc I derived from Anglo-Saxon, a word meaning demon, usually supposed to be derived from the Latin Orcus -- Hell. But I doubt this, though the matter is too involved to set out here." In a letter to Gene Wolfe – Edlothiad Jul 11 '17 at 14:06

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