It's very common -- specially in fantasy and science-fiction -- to use race instead of species.

For example:

  • “In Middle Earth (...) Aragorn (race: men) (...) Bilbo (race: hobbit)” 1
  • “Tarkin's motivation was the enslavement of the Wookiee race for use as manual (...)”2
  • “The human race has only one really effective weapon and that is laughter.”3

Shouldn't be used species instead?

From the Oxford dictionary:


Biology. a group of living organisms consisting of similar individuals capable of exchanging genes or interbreeding. The species is the principal natural taxonomic unit, ranking below a genus and denoted by a Latin binomial, e.g. Homo sapiens.


each of the major divisions of humankind, having distinct physical characteristics: people of all races, colours, and creeds.

  • Honestly, I think this question would better be asked over at scifi.stackexchange.com. – JSBձոգչ Jan 22 '12 at 19:33
  • @JSBᾶngs That was my first thought, but the sci-fi references are just examples. My interest for species/race is at English language level. – pferor Jan 22 '12 at 19:36
  • 2
    I don't understand why this question was closed. I think it is a perfectly ordinary "word differences" question. I have voted to reopen it. Also, you may find this question interesting. – Kit Z. Fox Jan 23 '12 at 2:22
  • One of the great things about being a writer of fiction is that you can stretch the meanings of words, enriching the readers' experience by making them think about why you would make a certain word choice. – nohat Jan 23 '12 at 22:44
  • One you can present convincing evidence that the word to be used in the context has a specific definition (with help from anthropology or another related field), English language comes into the picture to select the expression corresponding to that definition. Whether something is a race or a species or 'elsething' is not for language to decide. – Kris Dec 15 '13 at 6:55

No. In its entry for race the ‘Oxford English Dictionary's ’ first definition is 'A group of people, animals, or plants, connected by common descent or origin.'

  • But then why to use race to classify, say, caucasian/nordic, if both are human race? Isn't that ambigous? – pferor Jan 22 '12 at 19:41
  • @pferor: I don't think so. 'Nordic race' can mean 'A group of people . . connected by common descent or origin', just as 'human race' can. – Barrie England Jan 22 '12 at 20:35
  • Sure, but I think the question is whether it's sensible to use the term "race" to distinguish different fictional species. Normally, we use the word "race" strictly to distinguish sub-species. If I said "Jack and Jill are different races", you wouldn't think Jack was a human and Jill an alien, because "races" are within a species. – David Schwartz Jan 22 '12 at 20:55
  • @DavidSchwartz: I gather by subspecies you mean some group that is a subgroup of a species rather than its technical meaning; there is only one extant subspecies of human, Homo sapiens sapiens, and the concept of human racial classification is largely cultural, not biological. – Jon Purdy Jan 23 '12 at 3:19
  • By "subspecies" I mean a classification within a species. – David Schwartz Jan 23 '12 at 5:05

It all comes down to sex - can they breed?

So you would probably have to troll the murkier corners of fan fiction to find sufficent examples of man-on-dwarf action to determine if they can interbreed.

Species is becoming a less useful term in biology with more genetic information and it's definition is now a bit fuzzy. Race is a good literary alternative.

  • Well, naturally humans and elves can breed. How else to you explain the high percentage of half-elves in D&D games? – Kit Z. Fox Jan 23 '12 at 2:26

At one level, the answer to your question "shouldn't [they] use 'species' instead?" is "Why should they use a technical, scientific word rather than an ordinary English word?".

Looking at it a different way, the set of circumstances we're talking about is the interaction of humans with something that's like humans but not quite human. In the present day, that is a purely fictional scenario - but in earlier centuries it was a reality, when Europeans encountered people who did not look or behave like them. Whether or not these others were of the same species or not was not apparent (and I'm not sure that the question would have been intelligible to many at the time) but it was immediately obvious that they were of different "race".

In time some scholars certainly decided that they were of different species (see for example Samuel Morton) but the divisions have always been referred to as "races" - though as Barrie says, the word has other meanings as well.

From our modern perspective, we know that all extant humans are of one species, so any subdivision can only be races (though nowadays such subdivisions are not regarded as meaningful by most scientiests). But I suggest that the experience of European explorers who first encountered different kinds of humans was very much akin to that of Terran explorers in Science Fiction who make the first contact with humanoid aliens.


The dictionary also defines 'literally,' as meaning 'literally,' and 'virtually.'

Dictionaries and common usage can only take us so far.

Scientific definitions are much more useful. In SCIENCE, species are defined by speciation. If two individuals can produce viable offspring, they are of the same species.

This is a ricketey definition, as life itself is largely misunderstood. Science struggles to issue a definition even there.

However, calling aliens a different race is merely yet another ideological tool in the belt of racists. Some use it unknowingly, even innocently, but that does not stop their actions from hurting others.

When black kids see the newest Hollywood movie about an alien 'race,' they understand that the language is built against them. It perpetuates a feeling of alienation.

In short: races are like breeds of dogs. Maybe our ears are bigger or shorter, but we're all the same species.

Aliens are a different species.

If Fantasy settings were subjected to real-world scientific rigor (not necessary at all - indeed I believe such rigor would make the setting sci-fi with fantasy trappings) then Orcs, Humans, and Elves (if they could produce Half-Elves, Half-Orcs, etc.) would all be of the same species. However, if each has an origin story involving magical deities, or being shaped out of mud or emerging from a blooming flower, then all bets are off.

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