There has always existed the question among Tolkien fans as to what exactly the difference is between all of the evil creatures the author describes in his books. What’s the difference between goblins and orcs? Is there any? What does “Uruk-hai” mean? Was Peter Jackson’s portrayal in the films correct? Well, I may not be able to definitively answer the question once and for all, but perhaps there is some light to be shed on the matter.
Throughout the Middle-earth stories the main villains are a Dark Lord and his main henchmen are hideous, grotesque creatures, sometimes called orcs, sometimes called goblins. This interchange of words can be confusing, as most assume these two creatures are different breeds or types of some evil species. They are, in fact, not. ‘Goblin’ and ‘Orc’ are used interchangeably in nearly all instances. Both terms are used to describe the overall race of these evil creatures. The word ‘goblin’ is used predominantly in The Hobbit and ‘orc’ is used predominantly in The Lord of the Rings but both terms are referring to the same type of enemy.
In the same vein, the word ‘Uruk’ is used many times in The Lord of the Rings, as well as the related ‘Uruk-hai.’ This is simply a rendering of ‘orc’ in the Black Speech. ‘Uruk-hai’ translates to ‘orc-folk’ as the element ‘hai-‘ means folk or people.
Despite the many different names for the same creature, there are different breeds of orcs in the Tolkien universe. There are the orcs in the mountains that are said to be smaller and can not tolerate sunlight easily. The orcs from Mordor are usually larger and are the primary fighting force for Sauron’s armies. Saruman also was said to have cross-bred orcs and some form of “goblin-men” to create orcs that could withstand the sun; these appear at helms deep and various other battles in the Third Age.