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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 bronce 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
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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 there are 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 bronce is. In my mind you make heroic statues out of bronce; out of latón you make at most a water spigot.

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 chapas (also used as the name of the material) and these often have zinc in their composition.

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    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
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    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
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    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 Jun 7 '17 at 21:19
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I believe "laton" has more of a European Spanish use as opposed to "bronce" which is what I've heard all my life for brass. (I'm of Cuban descent.)

European Spanish and Latin American Spanish can be vastly different and even use from one country to the other can be quite different. Much like we don't use "lift", "flat" or "pudding"in the U.S. with the same meaning they have in England, European and Latin American usage can be radically different and much of what English speakers receive as a proper translation is usually a European translation.

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  • Thank you for posting your first answer and welcome to the Spanish Language site @Daisy garcia . – ipp Dec 5 '19 at 12:50
  • I second the welcome. I bet you're right, and when brass crosses the ocean it changes name. // I do think you could strengthen your answer by taking out the second paragraph. But I'm sure that as you explore the site, you'll find lots of places where you can help us with regional differences. That is a major theme of the site! – aparente001 Dec 5 '19 at 15:19
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As a native Spanish speaker (Arg), I recently surprised myself discovering that brass mean latón and not bronce as I always thought.

From what I remember I've rarely heard the word latón to denominate any piece that has its characteristic color, we have always used the term bronce.

For the music instruments such as horns, tuba, trombones and trumpet they usually are named “los bronces”.

I believe the word latón has a “low quality” connotation —as it was mentioned above in this forum—, because it sounds to be derived from lata. In my perception to say something is made out of latón, sounds cheap and low quality.

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  • What you said about the brass instruments is interesting. In Mexico they are "los metales." Where did you hear "los bronces" in a musical context? – aparente001 Dec 5 '19 at 14:19

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