I work in a maintenance department supply room that has stocks both brass and bronze parts (among many others). The majority of maintenance personnel are L1 Spanish speakers from various Latin American countries.

In teaching myself the Spanish translation of lesser-used words for various maintenance parts, I've learned

But, my L1 Spanish-speaking coworkers insist that there's only one word, bronce, for either alloy. They all give me funny looks and/or correct me whenever I say "latón" when referring to a brass part.

But I'm not convinced that the use of just one word is correct. The English Wikipedia page for "brass" says, in the second paragraph,

By comparison, bronze is principally an alloy of copper and tin.

"Brass" in Spanish Wikipedia ("Latón") concurs:

Si bien el Crocodile Crocodile Retro Retro Solid Solid Tote Red Red Tote Crocodile 7aqxAInHA es, en cambio, principalmente una aleación de cobre con estaño [...]

My basic understanding of metallurgy tells me that these are indeed two distinct alloys, with bronze being the "older" one (in terms of human history). Noting that "bronze" and "bronce" appear to be cognates, whereas "brass" and "latón" are vastly different, reinforces this idea.

While I respectfully disagree with my Spanish-speaking coworkers, is their usage of just "bronce" for either alloy indeed correct?

  • I know latón as tin, in Mexico. Perhaps you could ask one of the more sophisticated of your customers how they would distinguish between the two types of bronce. Note, latón seems to be related to lata (tin can). –  aparente001 Jun 5 '17 at 6:11
up vote 8 down vote accepted

Quoting from Wikipedia:

El bronce es toda aleación metálica de cobre y estaño, en la que el primero constituye su base y el segundo aparece en una proporción del 3 al 20 %. Puede incluir otros metales. Las aleaciones constituidas por cobre y zinc se denominan propiamente latón; sin embargo, dado que en la actualidad el cobre se suele alear con el estaño y el cinc al mismo tiempo, en el lenguaje no especializado la diferencia entre bronce y latón es bastante imprecisa.

If we discount the confusion mentioned in the last sentence, English bronze and brass seem to be rather exactly correlated with Spanish bronce and latón, but see what English Wikipedia says about the difference:

Because historical pieces were often made of brasses (copper and zinc) and bronzes with different compositions, modern museum and scholarly descriptions of older objects increasingly use the more inclusive term "copper alloy" instead.

So there's a bit of a problem distinguishing the two alloys, because they're actually not two but many possible ones, and both actual composition and common word usage have shifted.

Where exactly do your Latin American coworkers come from? I've never worked in a supply store or even shopped in supply stores much, so I don't know what the usage is in my area, but I definitely know the word latón as "alloy of copper and zinc". It's also clear to me that latón is not a noble material while Pink Women Handbag Crossbody Purse JAGENIE Hot Shoulder Holographic Embroidery Gold Laser Clutch Bag bronce is. In my mind you make heroic statues out of bronce; out of latón you make at most water spigots.

As for etymology, bronze and bronce are of course cognates, though their common origin is obscure. See how long this confusion has been going on:

In Middle English, the distinction between bronze (copper-tin alloy) and brass (copper-zinc alloy) was not clear, and both were called bras.

Brass itself is also unexplained.

Latón comes from lata, which means both "can" and (less formally) the material which makes up the can, which can vary a bit. The material used nowadays for preserved food cans (latas de conserva) is called hojalata: it's iron or steel between layers of tin. Metal sheets for construction are Both Women Certificate Bag Shopping Wallet Purse Hand Crystalzhong Pocket Package Travel Color Mens Large Capacity Men Classic Leather Leather Wallet and Black Black tSxpqwYOq (also used as the name of the material) and these often have zinc in their composition.

  • 1
    Funny you should mention knowing latón as an "alloy of copper and tin" (implying bronze, not brass); my coworkers only use bronce for either / both. Sigh... P.S. I work with folks from Mexico, Guatemala, Puerto Rico, Cuba, and Ecuador, so I get a diverse selection of region-specific Spanish (which I really enjoy!). –  pr1268 Jun 4 '17 at 14:43
  • @pr1268 Ha! My mistake. Latón is copper and zinc. So your coworkers don't know the word latón? Or they think it means something else? –  pablodf76 Jun 4 '17 at 14:48
  • They don't seem to know the word latón. Again, funny looks, smirks, and corrections ("¡Es bronce! ¿Qué es latón?"). –  pr1268 Jun 4 '17 at 15:04
  • I've never heard "latón" being used in Puerto Rico. If there's confusion, English (Spanglish) will be used to distinguish one from the other. BTW, "Estaño" is Tin, and "Calamina" is Peuter. –  Frank R. Jun 5 '17 at 15:33
  • Great question, and wonderful answers highlighting one example where the state of the art has left common usage ofbwirdss in the dust. In my engineering field, we avoid this ambivalence and inevitable discussions by referring to the alloy composition, which is really all we need. so we use Cuproniquel for an alloy 50% copper, 50% Nickel. In binary phase metallurgy you then refer to the base metal by it's percentage: Cuproniquel 70 then implies 70% copper, 30% nickel. For three phase non-ferrous alloys where no ANSI standards number has been assigned you have to spell out the recipe –  hlecuanda Women Pure PU Leather Soft Red Travel Girls Backpack Color Bag College Wine Domybest Shoulder FfwdF

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