The Wikipedia article "Orc (Middle-earth)" informs,

The Hobbit generally uses the term goblin, while The Lord of the Rings prefers orc.

Furthermore, Andres F.'s answer "Are orcs and goblins really the same thing?" establishes,

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

Therefore, since the terms goblin and orc are synonymous, why does J. R. R. Tolkien primarily refer to goblins in The Hobbit but uses the term orcs in The Lord of the Rings?

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    One was written before the other
    – Edlothiad
    Dec 20, 2017 at 16:04
  • 5
    Possible duplicate of Are orcs and goblins really the same thing?
    – mxyzplk
    Dec 20, 2017 at 21:04
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    @mxyzplk this is not a dup of that question, in fact I cited from an answers to that question in my question. I'm not asking if they are the same (they are) but rather why did Tolkien use different words in these two works?
    – David
    Dec 20, 2017 at 21:14
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    @Edlothiad: And "The Hobbit" was a children's book, so some things were toned down a bit to suit the intended audience.
    – jamesqf
    Dec 21, 2017 at 3:35
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    @jamesqf Sure, but that’s not why Goblin became orc or Necromancer became Sauron. That’s why they have a happy float down the river, why Sméagol originally gave Bilbo a “gift” and then they had a game of riddles, and why the dwarves elves and men make quick work of the “goblins” and wargs without much of a description for the battle.
    – Edlothiad
    Dec 21, 2017 at 6:08

3 Answers 3


The Hobbit was originally meant to be separate from his Legendarium

The Hobbit was written before The Lord of the Rings and as such wasn't originally part of the Legendarium, it was later added into the Legendarium after its success and the beginnings of the writings of its sequel, The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion. This change occurs in the second edition of The Hobbit where quite a few things change from the original. After The Hobbit, Tolkien decided 'Orc' was a better English translation for the Sindarin 'Orch' or Westron 'Orka' that his works were supposedly originally written in. Tolkien gives us a little insight into is preference in letter 151:

Your preference of goblins to orcs involves a large question and a matter of taste, and perhaps historical pedantry on my part. Personally I prefer Orcs (since these creatures are not 'goblins', not even the goblins of George MacDonald, which they do to some extent resemble).
The Letters of J. R. R.Tolkien — Letter 151, to Hugh Brogan, 18 September 1954

The letter above comes after the second edition of The Hobbit was published in 1951 when Tolkien changed The Hobbit so that it would fit into the mythology he was building and The Lord of the Rings. While its initial setting as a light, quick-paced children's book may have influenced the initial choice of words, the reason words such as Goblin become Orc and Necromancer become Sauron, is because of its introduction into the greater mythology that Tolkien began building decades before The Hobbit.

The word Orc does appear in The Hobbit, 2 times on its own and 6 times as "Orcrist". It is interesting to not that both times it's used on its own it seems to reference larger goblins. This is reminiscent of the original state of the story before its addition into the Legendarium.

not knowing that even the big ones, the orcs of the mountains...

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.

This, Thorin, the runes name Orcrist, the Goblin-cleaver in the ancient tongue of Gondolin

They had called it Orcrist, Goblin-cleaver, but the goblins called it simply Biter.

Orcrist, too, had been saved; for Gandalf had brought it along as well, snatching it from one of the terrified guards.

You nearly chopped off my head with Glamdring, and Thorin was stabbing here there and everywhere with Orcrist.

“We have none,” said Thorin, and it was true enough: their knives had been taken from them by the wood-elves, and the great sword Orcrist too.

Upon his tomb the Elvenking then laid Orcrist, the elvish sword that had been taken from Thorin in captivity.

  • 5
    Aren't Orcs and goblins different? Even in Lord of the Rings Online, there are specific goblins. In the movies (yeah, I know...) the goblins of goblin town were definitely different creatures than orcs. Do not they both exist? Dec 20, 2017 at 21:21
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    @TylerDahle as outlined in the question, they are exactly the same (source here). In the latest state of the legendarium, Tolkien had settled on the idea that they were indeed one species. Tolkien himself saying he preferred the term "Orc" to "goblin" considering it was closer to the Sindarin Orch.
    – Edlothiad
    Dec 20, 2017 at 21:27
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    It looks more like a text reader error (rt --> n). Is the copy of the letter you're reading scanned, by any chance?
    – jpmc26
    Dec 20, 2017 at 22:21
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    @jpmc26 Oof you might be right, but I thought it was from my epub... It is from my ePub. It's possible that it is a mistake in scanning, I don't have my books with me. argh! Michael Martinez quotes the same though. As does lotrplaza, but the one ring quotes it as part
    – Edlothiad
    Dec 20, 2017 at 22:31
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    This is completely false - John Rateliff showed in the History of the Hobbit quite clearly that the Hobbit was always intended to belong in the 'universe' of Tokien's mythos, even if maybe not in its 'continuity'. Tolkien was relying on his mythos for background even in the earliest drafts - the Necromancer was always Sauron, and in the earliest drafts, Gandalf investigated his tower and found Thorin's father there before Beren and Luthien cast it down (which is explicitly pointed out). Tolkien could not have used 'goblin' because he thought the Hobbit was separate from the Silmarillion. Dec 21, 2017 at 16:48

The style of writing is very different from that of The Lord of the Rings.

One of those differences is that Tolkien uses fewer "foreign" words in The Hobbit. Presumably, his opinion at the time was that a large number of unfamiliar words would not be acceptable to his audience, especially an audience of children (an opinion that may have changed by the time he published The Lord of the Rings). Instead, he tends to use English words (that are sometimes translations, and sometimes not). For example in The Hobbit:

  • He refers to Sauron as the Necromancer.
  • He refers to Erebor as the Lonely Mountain.
  • He refers to Elrond's dwelling as "The Last Homely House" and the surrounding area as "Rivendell". In The Lord of the Rings, he uses "Rivendell" and "Imladris" to refer to both Elrond's dwelling and the surrounding area.
  • He generally refers to Orcs as Goblins.

He also tends to provide immediate translations of the invented words that he does use. For example, when Elrond tells Gandalf and the Dwarves the history of the swords they got from the troll's lair, he says:

This, Thorin, the runes name Orcrist, the Goblin-cleaver in the ancient tongue of Gondolin; it was a famous blade. This, Gandalf, was Glamdring, Foe-hammer that the king of Gondolin once wore. Keep them well!

The Hobbit Chapter 3: A Short Rest
Page 48 (George Allen and Unwin 1966 paperback edition)

Note that Elrond not only translates the names of both swords, he also implies that Orc and Goblin are the same word.

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    You seem to be basing these name changes on the fact that this was a children’s book, yet these names existed before The Hobbit’s introduction into the Legendarium in the second edition
    – Edlothiad
    Dec 20, 2017 at 16:51
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    @Edlothiad I'm saying that Tolkien decided to use more "English-friendly" words in The Hobbit, in because he though at the time that they would be more acceptable, and especially so in a children's book. I'll edit the answer to try to be more clear on that. I'm not sure what your point is about "entering the Legendarium", but that was a term that was dreamed up much later.
    – Blackwood
    Dec 20, 2017 at 16:57
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    My point is that these were the words he used not because it was a children’s book but because it had no place, originally, in the mythology he was building
    – Edlothiad
    Dec 20, 2017 at 17:06
  • Not only did he have some things to say about whether it is truly a book for children (in the letters, of course) but this (your examples) comes down to language rather than writing style. Imladris means Rivendell. Erebor is Sindarin. In other words it's not a different writing style (at least as far as the names go perhaps with the exception of Sauron/Necromancer) but language. As for orc versus goblin I want to say in the Etymologies there was a time they were seen different but I'm vague on what that is (something to do with size, perhaps, but maybe more than that). But that did change.
    – Pryftan
    Dec 21, 2017 at 22:04
  • ..As for 'why' I can't say: perhaps though since The Hobbit is a much simpler story he didn't feel the need to elaborate whereas in The Lord of the Rings there is much more to tell hence using more than one name and helping the reader out to learn some elvish (hence saying something in elvish and then what it translates to, often, or explaining that Morannon meant Black Gate, etc.). I still don't think that it's a matter of style though so much as trying to flesh it out more (which I suppose is up to debate on if that's the same thing).
    – Pryftan
    Dec 21, 2017 at 22:07

Tolkien used "goblin" in his light-hearted writings, and "orc" in his writings directly connected to the legendarium

In keeping with the pattern established in the preceding chapters, this chapter introduces yet another a new race: the goblins. Like the elves and dwarves, goblins already had a long history in Tolkien’s writings predating The Hobbit. Even if we overlook the undifferentiated fairy-folk lumped under the ‘goblin’ label in ‘Goblin Feet’ [published 1915], goblins were featured prominently throughout the early Silmarillion material, especially in ‘The Tale of Tinúviel’, ‘Turambar and the Foalókë’, and ‘The Fall of Gondolin’ [all written 1916–20]. Goblins fought alongside balrogs and dragons in the sack of Gondolin, and goblin-mercenaries aided the dwarves in looting Tinwelint’s caves in Artanor (the precursors in the legendarium to Thingol’s Thousand Caves of Menegroth in Doriath). The terms ‘goblin’ and ‘orc’ were used more or less interchangeably in the early material – thus in ‘The Fall of Gondolin’ we hear of ‘Melko’s goblins, the Orcs of the hills’ (BLT II.157), ‘the Orcs who are Melko’s goblins’ (BLT II.159), and ‘an innumerable host of the Orcs, the goblins of hatred’ (BLT II.176), while in ‘Turambar and the Foalókë’ Beleg tracks ‘the band of Orcs . . . a band of the goblins of Melko’ (BLT II.77). It’s possible to read Orc as the more specific term and goblin as the more generic, but often ‘goblin’ apparently replaces the more common ‘orc’ simply for the sake of variety, especially in the alliterative poetry. On the whole, the evidence suggests that Tolkien preferred ‘orc’ for works in the direct line of the Silmarillion tradition (such as ‘The Sketch of the Mythology’, the narrative poems that make up The Lays of Beleriand, the 1930 Quenta, and so forth) and used ‘goblin’ in more light-hearted contexts, such as The Father Christmas Letters and The Hobbit.

John Rateliff - The History of the Hobbit - The Second Phase - IV. Goblins i. Goblins

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