Although preceded by Linnaeus's system in Systema Naturae (10th edition, 1758) and unpublished work by Bernard and Antoine Laurent de Jussieu, the notion of a unit-based "natural system" of biological classification was first made widely available in 1805 through the publication, as the introduction to the third edition of Jean-Baptiste Lamarck's Flore françoise, of Augustin Pyramus de Candolle's Principes élémentaires de botanique, an exposition of a system for the "natural classification" of plants. Since then, systematists have striven to construct an accurate classification encompassing the diversity of life; today, a "good" or "useful" taxon is commonly taken to be one that reflects evolutionary relationships.[n 1]
Many modern systematists, such as advocates of phylogenetic nomenclature, use cladistic methods that require taxa to be monophyletic (all descendants of some ancestor). Their basic unit, therefore, is the clade rather than the taxon. Similarly, among those contemporary taxonomists working with the traditional Linnean (binomial) nomenclature, few propose taxa they know to be paraphyletic. An example of a well-established taxon that is not also a clade is the class Reptilia, the reptiles; birds are descendants of reptiles but are not included in the Reptilia.
The term taxon was first used in 1926 by Adolf Meyer-Abich for animal groups, as a backformation from the word Taxonomy; the word Taxonomy had been coined a century before from the Greek components τάξις (taxis, meaning arrangement) and -νομία (-nomia meaning method). For plants, it was proposed by Herman Johannes Lam in 1948, and it was adopted at the VII International Botanical Congress, held in 1950.
A taxon can be assigned a taxonomic rank, usually (but not necessarily) when it is given a formal name.
A prefix is used to indicate a ranking of lesser importance. The prefix super- indicates a rank above, the prefix sub- indicates a rank below. In zoology the prefix infra- indicates a rank below sub-. For instance, among the additional ranks of class are superclass, subclass and infraclass.