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I have been studying Spanish off and on for many years. Most of the time I have been told 'café' used to translate brown. However, my latest teacher says 'marrón'.

Is one more appropiate in certain situations or countries?

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    Do you mean "color café"? – Gustavson May 21 at 0:58
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    Hello, Vikki, welcome to this site. Could you include a full sentence using the term requested? In Spain, café is the beverage known as coffee in English. Nobody uses "brown" to order it. In relation with colors, café is a specific kind of brown. – RubioRic May 21 at 5:06
  • Where are you studying Spanish? Where are your teachers from? – fedorqui 'SO stop harming' May 21 at 7:33
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    There are multiple ways to say "marrón" in Spanish. There's also "castaño" and "pardo". – Gustavson May 21 at 11:04
  • Using coffee to refer to the color brown, is like using an apple to refer to the color red or green... it's simply a type. The translation for the color is marrón. – Manatax May 21 at 18:04
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The name of the brown color in Spanish is given by things that have the same color. When roasted, coffee beans have a nice brown color, which gave way to use café as the name of that color in the countries where coffee beans are grown (mostly Hispanic America, as you can see in fedorqui's answer).

Here at the other side of the Atlantic we do not have coffee beans, so we used another thing to refer to the brown color: chestnuts. Chestnuts have a proper brown color so we used to refer to that color as castaño, which comes from Latin castanea and this from Greek κάστανα kástana, so as you can see it is indeed an old word. You can find references to texts such as "un borrico castaño" or "un caballo castaño" in Spanish texts from the XVI century. We still use castaño to refer to the brown color, but mostly to refer to a hair color.

Nonetheless, the most used word here is marrón, which we took from French marron, which also refers to chestnuts. This is a relatively new word. In the Royal Spanish Academy's first dictionary from 1734, the word marron referred to a kind of stone used to play marro, a game. The first time the word marrón was recorded in the Academy's dictionary as the name of the brown color was less than 100 years ago, in 1925, although you can find cases starting from the last quarter of the XIX century:

Marrón usage

Of course, once in Spain we were aware of coffee beans and the beverage, we also started to say color de café, you can find texts in publications from Spain starting from the middle of the XVIII century using this expression, and the variation color de café con leche to refer to light brown. Nonetheless in Spain the word café is very seldom used to refer to the color. Of course the opposite is also true, nothing stops people in Hispanic America to use marrón for the color, in fact it seems to be the most used word in some of those countries.

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It indeed changes from country to country. In general we can say that:

  • 'café' / 'color café' is not used in Spain and can be understood in Hispanic America
  • 'marrón' is used in Spain

In any case, there are other words used for this, such as 'castaño' (see What's the difference between 'marrón' and 'castaño'?) or 'carmelita' (in Cuba, as seen ¿Origen de "carmelita" como color? or Bolivia and Chile, according to DAMER's entry).

The Diccionario de americanismos explains in café:

café
adj. Mx, Gu, Ho, ES, Ni, CR, Pa, Cu, RD, Co, Ec, Pe, Bo, Ch, Py, Ar, Ur. De color café.

That is, that 'café' is an adjective to name the colour and it is used in these countries:

  • Argentina
  • Bolivia
  • Chile
  • Colombia
  • Costa Rica
  • Cuba
  • Ecuador
  • El Salvador
  • Guatemala
  • Honduras
  • México
  • Nicaragua
  • Panamá
  • Paraguay
  • Perú
  • República Dominicana
  • Uruguay

So if we check against the list of countries from Hispanic America we see that it is used in all countries in Hispanic America but Venezuela.

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  • I'm curious about the source of this. I grew up (and lived a good part of my adult life) in Argentina. I never use "café", nor I have heard people using it. In order of most to least used, I would say it's marrón (by a long shot the standard one), castaño, "color café", pardo; with the last two being very rare. – Martin Argerami May 21 at 14:48
  • @MartinArgerami well DAMER lists places where this is used, but it is difficult to track how much. Google Trend does not show much info if we filter by Argentina, but indeed shows a prevalence of 'marrón. We have a fundamental problem here consisting in that we don't know which are the sources they use (or at least in Internet) so this can vary a lot and can range from a neighbourhood to a full country. Also strange that just Venezuela is not in the list – fedorqui 'SO stop harming' May 21 at 15:09
  • @MartinArgerami I updated to make things clearer according to your comment: 'café' or 'color café' is understood in Hispanic America, while it is not in Spain. This is the fragile certainty we have. – fedorqui 'SO stop harming' May 21 at 15:15
  • I'm from Argentina, and I can tell you we use the word marron. We do understand the use of coffee as a type of brown, but it is not common to refer to a color by type outside of a specialized context. – Manatax May 21 at 17:59
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I've noticed that marrón is used very seldomly in Mexico, where they prefer café. Of course there will be parts of Mexico where they use marrón, but it's mostly a regional thing just like soda, coke, and pop in the U.S.

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