It’s all about measuring butter. I said to Kim (who was preparing for a grocery run tomorrow) that I could use a stick of butter for cooking, and she was surprised: “I thought you’d say cube, not stick.” Me: “I don’t think I’ve ever said cube of butter in my life. It sounds weird to me.” So of course we went searching, and found considerable confusion.

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Quite a few people asked what cubes of butter were; that means they’d somehow come in contact with the usage. They got two very confident, but very different, answers:

cube-1: a synonym of stick, where stick is as in this NOAD definition (essentialy the same as OED3’s):

noun stick: US a quarter-pound <4-oz.> rectangular block of butter or margarine.

cube-2: a quarter-stick of butter, hence (at least roughtly) a 1-oz. cube of butter

The cube-2 usage makes a lot of sense, at least if this is what a stick of butter looks like to you (as it does to Kim and me, but not, as it turns out, to everyone):

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(#3) Sticks of butter are (mostly) long and thin east of the Rockies, short and fat west of them

The dimensions:

West Coast (WC): 1.5 in. wide, 1.5 in. high, 3.25 in. long

East Coast (EC): 1.25 in. wide, 1.25 in. high, 5 in. long

The EC object is clearly a stick, significantly longer than it is thick. But the WC object is a poor instance of a stick, too far from the prototype of the stick category; it’s way too chunky and stubby. The WC object isn’t straightforwardly a cube, but it’s closer to being a cube than it is to being a stick, so cube wouldn’t be a crazy name for it.

I know nothing of the commercial history that led to this EC/WC, thin/thick, divergence in butter-stick dimensions. But there it is. We should then expect that cube-1 users are concentrated on the West Coast of the US.

Stick is clearly the general US variant, used by people of all regions and ages and by people without associations to food distribution and preparation as well as by those who are plugged into these activities. What remains is to find out who uses cube-1 and in what circumstances; we can collect some self-reports and scare up some more anecdotes — they’ll help to give us some feel for what factors might be relevant — but a real analysis is going to take some big data and powerful analytic tools.

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Oh yes, and we need to find out how the two types of butter-sticks, the thin ones and the thick ones, are actually distributed in stores.