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I always thought 'tin' and 'can' to mean about the same thing, guessing maybe these are regional names. Then I encountered this:

French MRE

Inside are 2 precooked, ready-to-eat main courses packed in cans and an hors d'oeuvre packed in a can or tin.

I tried Google Images to try discerning the difference but I spot no obvious ones.

What is the difference between a can and a tin?

10 Answers 10

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An American English speaker here. A can is cylindrical. A tin is usually rectangular, lower than it is wide (rather flat), and almost exclusively used for containing preserved fish, e.g. "a tin of sardines" and "a tin of kippered herring".

Also, we very specifically use the phrase cookie tin to refer to a squat cylindrical metal box of particular dimensions for selling cookies.

I'm not sure this feat is reproducible from computers in other locales, but when I (in Boston, MA, USA) put "a tin of" (in quotes like that) into google image search, most of the first hits are open tins of fish, a few open metal boxes of Spam (hmm, yes, if I ever had occasion to discuss Spam, I suppose I would refer to its container as a tin and not a can because to me can means round and Spam is in a rectangular box), and a round box of cookies.

I don't know if this actually answers what might be your real question: what does the French government think the difference between can and tin is. That may be something else entirely. Governments use words their own ways.

  • I (AmE, west coast) agree with this answer. I would only add that beans can be purchased in a closed cylinder. I would call that a "can." Once the beans have been poured out of the can, you will be left with an empty cylinder of aluminum. Now that the tin can is empty, I would refer to it as a "tin can". Hope that helps. – Adam Aug 8 '15 at 8:47
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Cans (or tin cans) come from the United States. Tins come from the UK. However, if cans are imported into the UK from the US, they become tins. Conversely, if a tin is imported into the US from the UK, it becomes a can. Unless it is a tin of Prince Charles's Duchy Originals Original Oaten Biscuits, in which case it is refused at port or, having passed through customs by some mischance, immediately destroyed. (For those interested, this is an example of British humor.)

All joking aside, in the US the above would be a "can of...what the heck kind of cookies are these? I never had an 'oaten' before."

Seriously, all joking aside really now, Americans say can, British say tin. That's the only difference there is. Looking at your source, it looks like "can or tin" is attempting to explain for both US and British. Here's another version, from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Field_ration:

Inside are 2 precooked, ready-to-eat meal main courses packed in thin metal cans somewhat like oversized sardine tins, and an hors d'oeuvre in a more conventional can or tin.

I can see why this would be confusing! Whoever wrote this was probably trying to make sure that both Americans and British understood that it was a can/tin.

  • 1
    As a native British English speaker I don't recognise this distinction. Obviously I can't speak for the use of "tin" in America but in my experience "can" is widely used in BrE as a synonym for "tin". – Nigel Harper May 7 '14 at 7:58
  • That's interesting, Nigel. My experience of BrE is from 1969-71, when I lived there as a teenager, and that wasn't so at that time to the best of my recollection. I've noticed "Americanisms" finding their way into BrE in what I read on the internet, and it would seem that this is one of them. I see a lot of Brits saying "guy" these days, when back then I was teased about it ("Hey thanks Baahb, man, yerr an okay guy" sort of thing) until I learned to say "bloke". Must be all those American TV shows; if so you have my sympathies and apologies. – BobRodes May 7 '14 at 18:16
  • I'll also mention that we never say "tin" instead of "can" in the US. – BobRodes May 7 '14 at 18:19
  • I wouldn't mind that, believing the author meant 'cans a.k.a. tins' but the fact the main meals come only in cans while the hors d'oeuvre comes in a can or tin really throws me off. – SF. May 7 '14 at 18:57
  • There's nothing wrong with most of the American TV we get over here, because we get to be picky :) We make our own dross :( – Nigel Harper May 8 '14 at 9:25
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Before retiring I had had a Company designing, manufacturing and installing CAN handling equipment for the major food, drinks, aerosol, paint and can making Companies etc throughout the UK and abroad. The container is a CAN ! TIN is a metal ! Cans used to be made from tin plated steel and were often referred to as tin cans. Cans are usually now made from tin free steel, aluminium, plastic or cardboard. They are cans regardless of their shape. Milk usually comes in plastic bottles but you would not buy a plastic of milk ! Ray Chase

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I have lived in England all my life and I agree with most of the answers from speakers of British English above. I never had any reason to analyse the circumstances in which Brits have traditionally used 'can' instead of 'tin' as an abbreviation for a metal 'tin can', but I feel certain linguistic norms has been missed. These are:

  1. If something that is purely a potable liquid is stored in a 'tin can' that is designed for that purpose, then Brits will invariably refer to the container as a 'can', eg. a can of milk/beer/olive oil etc.

  2. If a 'tin can' contains something that is solid and edible or is made up of a number of discrete solid edible objects, then Brits will invariably refer to the container as a 'tin', regardless of its shape, eg. a tin of bicuits/beans/tomatoes/salmon etc.

  3. If a 'tin can' is designed for containing an inedible material, whether liquid or solid, then Brits will always refer to it as a 'can' if it is taller than it is wide, eg. a can of petrol/motor oil/paint. This continues to be true, even if this 'tin can' is later re-used to contain edible solids, despite not having been designed for that purpose. For example, a petrol can that is repurposed for storing biscuits is still refered to by Brits as a 'can'.

  4. If a 'tin can' is designed for containing and an inedible material , whether liquid or solid, then Brits will always refer to it as a 'tin' if it is wider than it is tall, eg. a tin of polish/glue/ammunition. This continues to be true, even if this 'tin can' is later re-used to contain potable liquids, despite not having been designed for that purpose. For example, a shoe polish tin that is repurposed to contain drinking water, it is still referred to by Brits as a 'tin'.

The distinctions above refer to 'tin cans' that are made predominantly of metal, whether of tin, steel or aluminium. As far as plastic counterparts are concerned, Brits will generally refer to a plastic version of something they could describe as a 'can', also as a 'can'. For example, 'can' of motor oil is still refered to as 'can', even if it is made entirely of plastic.

With two notable exceptions, a Brit would NEVER refer to any plastic container as a 'tin'. The two notable exceptions are the plastic counterparts of the traditional metal tins of biscuits and metal tins of sweets (candy). These are exceptionally referred to as 'tins', but every Brit is conscious he or she is uttering the word 'in quotes' ie. the word 'tin' is used as a conscious metaphor when denoting the plastic contemporary counterpart of a traditional metal buscuit tin or sweet tin.

To those of us who grew up in Britain, these distinctions are natural and unconscious norms, in the same way that a regional accent is natural and unconscious to natives of a particular region. The usage isn't logical because, like all natural language, it's the result of cultural evolution, not human design.

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I imagine a can being cylindrical (as in a soup can), while a tin might by cylindrical but could also be another shape (box with a lid). To me, a "tin" refers more to what the container (in whatever shape) is made of.

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In NAmE can is the usual word used for both food and drink. In BrE can is always used for drink, but tin or can can be used for food, paint, etc.

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I think the full expression was "tin can", and the opposite sides of the Atlantic shortened it in opposite ways, to "tin" (UK) and "can" (US). Because they are rarely made of tin nowadays, the US version is gaining currency in the UK. I think BobRodes is probably right that the pack lists both because in a NATO context it has to be clear to UK and US personnel.

  • I used to hear "tin can" rather often as a kid in the 60's in the US. – BobRodes May 7 '14 at 18:18
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We say a tin of beans in the UK and not a can of beans. But we do say a can of coke, never a tin of coke. Paint also comes in tins. A tin of paint or paint tin, never a can

So the phrase Jerry can??? Not a cylindrical shape but still refured to as a can! This must be an American phrase. Jerry as in German and can as in tin. Also petrol can isn't cylindrical in shape but we still call it a can never a tin

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Tin is definitely the correct term in the UK, for what would be called a can in the USA. However the comment about the phrase "tin can" is also correct for the UK, but only when describing the object with no reference to the normal contents e.g. "I'm looking for a tin can to put nails in" would be ok. It would never be used in a way such as "I'm looking for a tin can of baked beans".

It's perfectly fine to just refer to the container alone as just a tin also. For example a long running advertising campaign for the company Ronseal (sealants and varnishes) had the tagline, "does exactly what it says on the tin".

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Originally cans we made of tin (the metal). So, like photocopying is called 'xerox' in the USA, it became usual to call a can 'a tin'. Later, cans were made from other (iron?) metals and the inner of the can was lined with tin. This is the reason why in the 1970s/1980s (when I was much younger) it was prohibited to sell damaged (bent) cans of fruit, mackerel, jam, etc as the tin layer may have got damaged and the food now can react with the iron(metal) {food poisoning}.

In North America (especially Canada) a (ship) 'container' is called a 'Sea can'. While in other parts of the world it is called a '20 foot container'and '40 foot container'.

Also, I believe 'can' is short for 'canister' and not a particular shape or size.

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