In biological classification, family (Latin: familia) is
- a taxonomic rank. Other well-known ranks are life, domain, kingdom, phylum, class, order, genus, and species, with family fitting between order and genus. As for the other well-known ranks, there is the option of an immediately lower rank, indicated by the prefix sub-: subfamily (Latin: subfamilia).
- a taxonomic unit, a taxon, in that rank. In that case the plural is families (Latin familiae)
- Example: "Walnuts and Hickories belong to the Walnut family.
What does and does not belong to each family is determined by a taxonomist. Similarly for the question if a particular family should be recognized at all. Often there is no exact agreement, with different taxonomists each taking a different position. There are no hard rules that a taxonomist needs to follow in describing or recognizing a family. Some families are accepted almost universally, while others are recognized only rarely.
History of the concept
The term familia was coined by French botanist Pierre Magnol in his Prodromus historiae generalis plantarum, in quo familiae plantarum per tabulas disponuntur (1689) where he called families (familiae) the seventy-six groups of plants he recognised in his tables. The concept of rank at that time was still in statu nascendi, and in the preface to the Prodromus Magnol spoke of uniting his families into larger genera, which is far from how the term is used today.
Carolus Linnaeus used the word familia in his Philosophia botanica (1751) to denote major groups of plants; trees, herbs, ferns, palms, etc. He used this term only in the morphological section of the book, discussing the vegetative and generative organs of plants. Subsequently, in French botanical publications, from Michel Adanson's Familles naturelles des plantes (1763) and until the end of the 19th century, the word famille was used as a French equivalent of the Latin ordo (or ordo naturalis). In nineteenth century works such as the Prodromus of de Candolle and the Genera Plantarum of Bentham & Hooker this word ordo was used for what now is given the rank of family.
In zoology, the family as a rank intermediate between order and genus was introduced by Pierre André Latreille in his Précis des caractères génériques des insectes, disposés dans un ordre naturel (1796). He used families (part of them not named) in some but not in all his orders of "insects" (which then included all arthropods).