Guy Keleny’s superb Errors and Omissions column in the Independent has delighted me today, by giving me a piece of knowledge that makes sense of a little bit of the English language – and that immediately makes me wonder why I hadn’t already realised it.
Living things are categorised by kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus and species (‘keep playing church organs, for god’s sake’). Scientists normally use the last two of these to identify organisms: Homo sapiens, Panthera leo, Tyrannosaurus rex, Staphylococcus aureus and so on. The genus identifies the wider group and then the species narrows it down.
What Keleny reveals (in the process of making an entirely different point) is that the adjective for species is specific and that for genus is generic.