23

The orcs insult and disparage elves but they use terms that seem too human -- is something being filth that big a deal to an orc? So are we getting only an imprecise translation of what orcs say often, perhaps only conveying sentiment without the real meaning? I think other species similarly refer to humans/elves/hobbits in this sort of way, IIRC trolls who also simply would not describe someone or something as filthy -- they would not notice. I could see using words like "weak" or "cowardly" or even insulting their intelligence but not hygiene of cleanliness of their clothing.

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    All orc speech is translated by Tolkien into English, hence all insults are insults that Tolkien would consider insulting
    – Valorum
    Jan 8, 2023 at 21:16
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    You should quote a passage showing Orcs actually calling Elves "filth".
    – Spencer
    Jan 8, 2023 at 21:29
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    As UK born and bred and in my mid 50s I recognise 'filth' or 'filthy' as an old fashioned mild insult. Wouldn't use it myself, but I understand it. It's just a generic insult, nothing to do with hygiene per se
    – Ian Bush
    Jan 8, 2023 at 22:40
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    "Filth" doesn't mean "filthy". The latter means lacking cleanliness, whereas the former is equating someone to foul or putrid matter, which seems like it would make sense as an insult even to not-particularly-clean orcs.
    – NotThatGuy
    Jan 9, 2023 at 14:33

4 Answers 4

52

In the appendices, Tolkien actually addresses this himself:

“But Orcs and Trolls spoke as they would, without love of words or things; and their language was actually more degraded and filthy than I have shown it. I do not suppose that any will wish for a closer rendering, though models are easy to find. Much the same sort of talk can still be heard among the orc-minded; dreary and repetitive with hatred and contempt, too long removed from good to retain even verbal vigour, save in the ears of those to whom only the squalid sounds strong.”

Link

Emphasis mine. Tolkien explicitly admits that the orcs' speech has passed through a translation filter, and he argues that it is done as he supposed no one had need for a more accurate translation.

Therefore, the real meaning of the word which is translated to "filth(y)" may simply be referring to something that to the orcs is considered filthy - even if that is not literal filth in the way that a human would label it.

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    I was discussing prison culture/moral code with someone who asserted that the worse crime in the eyes of the outside world, the higher status in prison. This is of course false: crimes against women and children are, just as most people probably feel, are considered terrible by inmates. Perhaps even orcs, despite their appearance, have no particular love of unpleasant things, at least if it happens to themselves. It is like rationalizing human treatment of pigs -- pigs actually like bathing if it is available.
    – releseabe
    Jan 9, 2023 at 6:40
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    Obviously, Tolkien is describing profanity without naming it. Profanity need not follow any rhyme or reason. The literal meaning could be almost anything that has significance to the Orcs, good or bad, just as long as they feel strongly about it (see for example French Canadian profanity).
    – Kevin
    Jan 9, 2023 at 9:00
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    @releseabe That's a point actually. There's this about what Orcs eat - "I don't think it gave life to the orcs, it only ruined them and twisted them; and if they are to live at all, they have to live like other living creatures. Foul waters and foul meats they'll take, if they can get no better, but not poison". (Emphasis mine). Implying that the Orcs are used to disgusting food, but will take better food when they can get it. The same might go for "filth".
    – A. B.
    Jan 9, 2023 at 9:10
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    Would probably be best to cite the location in an English edition, not a Russian edition.
    – ibid
    Jan 9, 2023 at 10:07
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    Or it's the word "shit".
    – user15742
    Jan 9, 2023 at 18:44
28

It may just be translated by tone

One of our only examples of actual black speech is Grishnákh's curse "Uglúk u bagronk sha pushdug Saruman-glob búbhosh skai"

He stooped over Pippin, bringing his yellow fangs close to his face. He had a black knife with a long jagged blade in his hand. ‘Lie quiet, or I’ll tickle you with this,’ he hissed. ‘Don’t draw attention to yourself, or I may forget my orders. Curse the Isengarders! Uglúk u bagronk sha pushdug Saruman-glob búbhosh skai’: he passed into a long angry speech in his own tongue that slowly died away into muttering and snarling.
The Lord of the Rings - Book III, Chapter 3 - "The Uruk-Hai"

This sentence is sort of unique in that Tolkien has provided three different translations for it:

Uglúk to the cesspool, sha! the dungfilth; the great Saruman-fool, skai!
Manuscript draft of Appendix F, published in 1996 in The Peoples of Middle-earth

Uglúk to the dung-pit with stinkinq Saruman-filth - pig-guts gah!
Typescript draft of Appendix E, published in 1992 in Vinyar Tengwar #26

Ugluk to torture (chamber) with stinking Saruman-filth. dung-heap. skai!
"Words, Phrases and Passages in various tongues in The Lord of the Rings", first fully published in 2007 in Parma Eldalamberon #17

Of note is that the phrase "Saruman-glob" is sometimes translated by Tolkien as "Saruman-fool" and sometimes as "Saruman-filth".

This can perhaps be interpreted as that it was some Orkish insult, which doesn't necessarily actually mean "filth" or "fool", but could be translated equally well to both of those based on the tone.

That said, there are a lot of places where Orcs (and other races) refer to other people or places as filth or filthy. Perhaps Orcs did find the word to be an insult, maybe due to borrowing from common speech, or maybe just they thought it was insulting when applied to a person.

For example we see Orcs calling other Orcs filthy as insult.

Then you must go. I must stay here anyway. But I’m hurt. The Black Pits take that filthy rebel Gorbag!’ Shagrat’s voice trailed off into a string of foul names and curses.
The Lord of the Rings - Book VI, Chapter 1 - "The Tower of Cirith Ungol"

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    It could be that Orcs are not very sophisticated. They know it's an insult, but as with many curse words, the literal meaning is not too important.
    – releseabe
    Jan 8, 2023 at 23:06
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    @releseabe This seems likely to me, It sounds like a translation-convention for scatalogical insults of all kinds, and it doesn't need to be literally true at all. Jan 9, 2023 at 12:48
9

Gollum and the Orcs seemed to perceive the lembas bread and other Elvish items as tasting terrible, full of a smell they didn't like, and outright poisonous or painful - e.g. Gollum with the Elvish rope. Everything the Elves touched seemed to have an aura of ancient light, perhaps of Valinor itself – and while a hobbit or Man might experience this as heavenly and bracing, creatures who were exposed to Melkor or Sauron for a long time had a strong negative reaction to it, an allergy in a sense. So they really did experience Elves and perhaps other races as having a strong malodorous scent, and/or a piercing light that caused migraine headaches (speculating). With that in mind, their descriptions of the Elves & Co. as "filthy" or "stinking" were accurate, from their own experience.

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    good points. a sort of inversion -- what is pleasant to humans is often but not always unpleasant to orcs. the exceptions are, orcs just like humans warm themselves at fires, correct? they enjoy eating when hungry, etc. that lembas tastes bad may indeed be due to magic.
    – releseabe
    Jan 10, 2023 at 4:46
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    No, I think Orcs are living creatures like any others. They enjoy warmth and good food and fellowship, defeating their enemies, they aspire to having open land for their own away from cruel overlords (as Shagrat discusses). But they and their ancestors before them have lived every day in fumy industrial squalor and slavery, never tasted really wholesome food, brought up with a totally skewed sense of morality - cutthroat to get ahead, bullying the weak, only the strongest survive, indoctrinated against enemy races. It's a tragedy really. The worst thing Melkor/Sauron did.
    – RC_23
    Jan 10, 2023 at 5:10
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    And the Elvish stuff may be a literal severe allergy, due to generations of exposure to supernatural evil auras.
    – RC_23
    Jan 10, 2023 at 5:11
-3

'Good guys' use terms like 'filthy' as literal descriptions which - of course - happen often to be insulting to the filthy.

In complete contrast, 'Bad guys' use such terms because they know the goodies often see them as insulting.

I suggest there is nothing more to it.

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