I've always thought that "can" was the typical term to refer to a can of sardines (or the like) in AE, and "tin" the BE equivalent, until I recently stumbled across "tin" used instead of "can" on a US website to designate a can of smoked trout.

And so, I was wondering whether "tin" could have migrated across the Atlantic from the UK to the US, and gained ground into regional or mainstream AE to designate -- along with "can" -- a small airtight flat container adapted for storing a pack of processed fish. Or, does "tin" have a specific meaning to it in AE?

I thought it might designate a can made of special metallic alloy suitable for food products, and also good for the environment.

Consider the Web page in question: source

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    Of course a UK 'tin', containing anything from soup to rice pudding, is not made of tin. It would be prohibitively expensive if it were. But at one time these cans were electro-plated with tin for preservation purposes. I don't know if they still are, or indeed what they are made of - steel?, aluminium?
    – WS2
    Commented Mar 7, 2014 at 19:58
  • Look up the history of tin cans, BTW. It's interesting. You will see that at one time, tin cans were kept behind the counter of a grocery or general store due to their significant cost. They were hand soldered, and painstakingly canned. Mechanization and canning improvements made them the ubiquitous cheap things we know today.
    – David M
    Commented Mar 7, 2014 at 21:15
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    Nourished Gourmet, there isn't a strict rule about using the word tin, in the UK. It is common but, the word can, is also used.
    – Tristan r
    Commented Mar 15, 2014 at 14:24

2 Answers 2


For what it's worth, it may be a regional thing, but in Monterey, California, we had a very big sardine industry not long ago. Sardines were produced in the canneries on a street called Cannery Row. This was made famous in 1945 in the John Steinbeck novel by the same name: Cannery Row, and later in 1982 in the movie by the same name.

Sardines are canned in canneries using a process called canning, and you generally won't find the word tin mentioned anywhere. (source: The little fish that we can: California’s sardine industry, now and then)

Online stores in Monterey call the containers cans, as this picture shows (although the single cans seem to be unavailable, they can be bought in a twelve pack).

sardine sold in cans

The American company Walmart describes their sardine products as being sold in a can:

pull top sardine can

If I look on Amazon.com, the suppliers describe their products both ways, with can being preferred only slightly, if it's mentioned at all. This surprises me, because I can't recall ever having heard anyone refer to a sardine tin in the United States (except maybe my wife's grandmother, but she was from Bermuda).


Since the Ngram Viewer is popular here, I've run one on AE usage, and then BE usage. There is definitely a preference inversion in the corresponding literature. But this distinction is stronger in AE, going for can, not tin:

American English ngram American English

British English ngram British English

Update 2

One more thing I forgot to address is your question about BPA-free containers. I think you will still find them called cans, as in this article, 7 Companies You Can Trust to Use BPA-Free Cans, which never mentions tin as what the BPA-free containers use, nor do they call the containers tins. Yet they still achieve BPA-free results for their products.


Originally, all cans were 'tin can' because cans were lined with tin. The Brits took tin, we took can for the short name.

The flat rectangular shaped can, however, is a tin even in the US, and always has been.

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    Metal containers of that shape, rectangular with rounded sides, even containing games and candy are still called tins.
    – Oldcat
    Commented Mar 7, 2014 at 20:17
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    @NourishedGourmet - In American English, canning is the process of hot-packing foods into rigid airtight containers, no matter what those containers are made of or what shape they are. (The flat, rectangular package is still called a "tin" in AE, even though the sardines inside are "canned".) Tinning, on the other hand, has nothing to do with food in AE; the most common meaning is "applying solder to the ends of wires". The link you provided is from an American company; a British site might have said "tinned sardines" instead.
    – MT_Head
    Commented Mar 7, 2014 at 20:18
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    Can of sardines, not tin - at least not in my lifetime. Where do you AmE speakers still hear "tin"? (I'm US Midwest) Commented Mar 7, 2014 at 20:24
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    I say "can of sardines/anchovies" even though I know that they are in what I would correctly identify as a tin, a flat, rectangular, round-edged can. Someone else does, too. Commented Mar 7, 2014 at 20:49
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    I wouldn't go so far as to say all flat metallic containers of this type are exclusively tins. It is perfectly acceptable to say sardine can when you're talking about a tight space! It is also perfectly acceptable to call all flat oblong cans tins, though.
    – David M
    Commented Mar 7, 2014 at 21:11

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