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In my native language, the stuff is called "aluminium foil".

In English, I always heard people use the phrase "tin foil" for that. I adopted that phrase thinking that despite the foil being made of aluminium (and not tin as it used to be) this is what people call it.

Recently a native American English speaking person took the phrase literally and wondered why I would want tin foil, because aluminium foil is much more common these days...

I checked the wikipedia article on the matter and found this quote:

Actual tin foil was superseded by cheaper and more durable aluminium foil after World War II. Despite this, aluminium foil is still referred to as "tin foil" in many regions.

What regions use the term "tin foil" what use "aluminium foil"? Does the majority of English speakers understand "tin foil" as "aluminium foil"?

I'd happily adopt the more correct phrase "aluminium foil", but a-lu-mi-ni-um is quite a mouth full. Even in my native language it is commonly abbreviated with just "alu". IS there something like that in English? I think the shortness of tin is what kept people using it.

What's the best phrase to refer to aluminium foil?

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    Note that at least AmE speakers may also say "tin can" when the cans in question are actually made from aluminum. Both products were formerly made from tin, hence the confusion. Tinsel was also made from tin at one point, but is now usually Mylar. – Todd Wilcox Jun 26 '16 at 4:20
  • @ToddWilcox: just nitpicking here, but modern "tin cans" are actually made of steel, not aluminum. Steel replaced the original tin-lead alloy (which could cause lead poisoning). Some can formulations were tin-coated steel to prevent corrosion (rust). See en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tin_can. – Mark Ripley Jun 26 '16 at 5:01
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    tin cans have always been steel, originally tin plated sheet steel, called "tin plate" or just "tin" depending on laziness. "tin roof", same deal. – Jasen Jun 26 '16 at 8:05
  • @MarkRipley Good point - partly. I was thinking about soda cans which are mostly aluminum these days, but you're right that food cans are steel. – Todd Wilcox Jun 26 '16 at 14:40
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Several commenters have wondered if the commonality of "tin foil" in the ngrams in other answers is affected by the phrase "tin foil hat" specifically. According to the ngram below, I would say not--as "tin foil hat" is quite a flat line compared to the others.

Now, whether or not the prevalence in modern-day speaking of "tin foil" is affected by the cultural term "tin foil hat" is another question; one we don't really have documentary evidence to support or disprove. I will say that from my AmE perspective, "tin foil" sounds distinctly British, and personally I say "aluminum foil" about half the time, and simply "foil" the rest of the time. It surprises me to see many AmE speakers weighing in as "tin foil" users. It's not something I hear in my area (north Texas) often.

So! Clearly this one is anecdotal, and varies highly among individual respondents (and doesn't even seem to have a high regional correlation). So I would say this: if you prefer "aluminum", and aluminum is technically scientifically correct, and everyone will understand you when you say it... That sounds like a lot of good evidence to go with it :) As long as you understand "tin foil" when you hear it, I don't see any reason to use it yourself if you don't want to.

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    The change from "tin foil" to "aluminum foil" in the ngram corresponds with the change in manufacturing from using tin to using aluminum (in case that's not obvious). So it seems that many people call it what it is, instead of what it used to be. – Todd Wilcox Jun 26 '16 at 4:23
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    Tin foil is very common in Central Atlantic US. – Tᴚoɯɐuo Jun 26 '16 at 10:09
  • tinyurl.com/h8d8p2a – Tᴚoɯɐuo Jun 26 '16 at 14:02
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    I accept this answer, but will continue using tin foil because I'm used to it, I rarely had problems with it before and it's short. The important thing to take away is "varies highly among individual respondents". I'm now aware of this variety and in case somebody rises an eyebrow over tin foil I can clarify immediately. Should I encounter more and more such situations that ask for clarification, I will give up the advantage of tin's shortness and switch to the more clear alumin(i)um – shakesbeer Jun 26 '16 at 15:51
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    You are falling prey to the Ngram falacy. Ngram does not represent common speech, but rather published text, with a heavy emphasis on "real" books. When someone writes for publication they are far more likely to use the "proper" terms (ie, "aluminum foil"), even though in common speech they may very likely use the "popular" term ("tin foil"). You cannot use Ngram to divine, with any accuracy, what is the current vernacular. – Hot Licks Jun 27 '16 at 1:29
9

GloWbE shows the following distribution (instances of "tin foil" as against total instances of "tin/alumin(i)um foil"):

  • Ireland: 54/76 (71%)
  • UK: 161/235 (69%)
  • US : 257/515 (50%)
  • Canada: 63/131 (48%)
  • Australia 69/147 (47%)
  • New Zealand 36/81 (44%)
  • 14 other countries 70/476 (15%)

So, on the web, at least, "tin foil" is predominant in UK and Ireland, about even in US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, and rare elsewhere.

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    Is there a time frame to this data? I think "tin foil" is an older usage. – user3169 Jun 25 '16 at 21:58
  • The GloWbE corpus is 2012-13. (Of course, some of the material might be older). – Colin Fine Jun 25 '16 at 22:02
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    I wonder how much this is skewed by the phrase "tin foil hat". – Hurkyl Jun 26 '16 at 1:05
  • How would tin foil hat skew it, exactly? Isn't the hat made of the stuff? – Tᴚoɯɐuo Jun 26 '16 at 10:08
  • @TRomano: as a separate phrase, the tin foil hat is probably never going to change into alumin(i)um foil hat even if the foil itself might eventually always be called alumin(i)um foil. If you asked what percentage of apes live in the jungle or outside of it, the human would skew the results. Things that match the search criteria but "branched off" to become independent things of their own should be excluded from the search. – shakesbeer Jun 26 '16 at 11:37
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As a native American English speaker from the East Coast, I call it tin foil.

I'm curious about where in the country speaker you talked to is from. In America, what the British call aluminium we call aluminum, so it would be strange if they called it aluminium foil.

I cannot find any map of the usage of tin vs. aluminum foil, but I think most know that tin foil means aluminum foil.

  • I totally overlooked that different spelling, it was indeed suggested without the additional "i" . – shakesbeer Jun 25 '16 at 21:46
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    As another native American English speaker from the East Coast, I concur. I expect to see it labeled "aluminum foil", and I might call it that sometimes, but I'm also likely to say "tin foil" when speaking casually. – stangdon Jun 25 '16 at 22:01
  • Curious: grew up in Texas. But I read a lot and don't often hear people speak of the stuff other than on TV. I'd be more likely to correct it than be influenced by it. – JDługosz Jun 26 '16 at 1:20
5

To illustrate the changing pattern of usage in written English over time, I offer this Ngram chart mapping frequencies for "tin foil" (blue line) versus "aluminum foil" (red line) versus "aluminium foil" (green line) across the period 1800–2005:

As the chart indicates, the rate of occurrence of "tin foil" in publications included in the Google Books database has remained fairly constant since about 1970. Because oral language tends to be less formal than written language, spoken English is probably even more disposed toward "tin foil" (as against the technically more accurate alternative "alumin[i]um foil") than written (and edited) English is.

In any event, the vast majority of native English speakers will understand "tin foil" to mean "alumin[i]um foil," though you can avoid any possibility of being misunderstood by opting for the latter term.

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    In the UK, common terms are "cooking foil", "kitchen foil", and "baking foil". I would expect "aluminium foil" to be used in spoken BrE mainly when there was a technical reason to specify the metal - i.e. you are not talking about silver foil, gold foil, etc. – alephzero Jun 26 '16 at 0:13
  • I wonder if the chart is squewed by tin foil hat specificly, as someone mentioned in an earlier post. Also, uses of just plain foil, baking foil (etc.) and Reynolds Wrap might also pull down tin foil as a percentage of all references. – JDługosz Jun 26 '16 at 1:25
2

What's the best phrase to refer to aluminium foil?

Foil.

A qualifier is not needed unless you insist on wrapping your leftovers in gold foil or silver foil. You're just going to wrap them in foil.

Regarding the title, Is “tin foil” for “aluminium foil” deprecated?, two points. One is that most of the English-speaking Western Hemisphere (i.e., the US and Canada) use aluminum rather than aluminium.

This leads to the second point: While some languages do indeed have an official body that decides what is and what is not proper, English is not one of them. There is no such thing as official English, and hence there is no such thing as "deprecated" in English. In alphabetical order, American English ≠ Australian English ≠ Bahamian English ≠ Canadian English ≠ English English ≠ Indian English ≠ Scottish English ≠ South African English. In fact, if you go to England itself you will hear the greatest diversity in what constitutes English.

If you ask for "tin foil" in an English speaking country (whether you need to make a nice hat for yourself or you need to wrap some leftovers doesn't matter), most will provide you with aluminum (or aluminium) foil without comment. A few pedants might comment that you really didn't mean "tin" -- unless you are making a hat for yourself. In that case, the hat is a tin foil hat, even if the foil is 1000% pure aluminium.

The reason for the longevity of "tin foil" as a generic term was that prior to World War II, foil made from tin was the cheap stuff that people used to wrap their leftover food. Nowadays it's aluminum that is cheap, but that is somewhat recent. Aluminum was expensive prior to World War II. The tip of the Washington Monument is made of aluminum partly because aluminum was more valuable than silver at the time that that monument was constructed.

1

I just call it Reynolds Wrap. This is the brand name and most well-known foil, in the USA. See here. Or I might call it tin foil even though it says aluminum foil right on the box.

This is similar, but probably not as widespread, as calling all facial tissue Kleenex. The use of brand names to refer to generic equivalents extends to coke in some parts of the USA (What kind of coke do you want? I'll have a root beer.) to the use of company names (capitalized or not) such as Xerox and Google as verbs to refer to an everyday process.

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I've studied dialects and accents in both the US and Ireland. I'm a linguistic Anthropologist. Without being complicated I can say the majority of people in the Northeastern part of the US say either tin foil or aluminum foil interchangebly. People in Ireland say "aluminium" except for younger people in and around affluent parts of Dublin who say "aluminum" foil as they speak something of a presige dialect based on American speech. Most just say "foil."

Tin-foil is a simple anachronism and not a dialect word. It's used throughout the English speaking world and easily understood.

0

The rarity of foil made of actual tin makes "tin foil" the preferred choice for references to metaphorical or iconic foil, such as:

  • that car is as solid as tin foil in a crash (vs steel or rock)
  • something is worth its weight in tin foil (vs gold)
  • tinfoil hat

Lead is associated with bullets, silk with smooth fabric, and tin with metal cans and foil, at least when talking about hypothetical objects and not what is physically manufactured today.

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