Sticks and cubes

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.

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 stickUS 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):


Such sticks are 1.25 in. wide, 1.25 in. high, and 5 in. long. A quarter piece of such a stick is then in fact a geometric cube, 1.25 in. on each side.

(Since someone is bound to ask: in US usage, there are 3 pats of butter in each ounce.)

The cube-1 usage, however, was just baffling to us. Why would anyone call the rectangular solids in #1 cubes?

Note the US restriction in NOAD‘s definition of stick (of butter). In the UK and Ireland, butter for cooking comes in blocks — which used to be half a pound (8 oz.) and are now close to that but metric, at 250 gm.:


(Spreadable butter now comes in tubs everywhere.)

(Practices no doubt vary throughout the English-speaking world; this is just a small sampling of the whole picture.)

I then spent some time trying to find records of the cube-1 usage in any kind of dictionary, but to no avail. All this suggested that the usage is relatively recent and possibly local. But people who have it are quite clear about it. From the Crafster community website, “Re: What’s a “cube” of butter (or margarine)?”, user kalon on 6/25/06:

In an American cookbook, a cube of butter is one stick.  Butter (or margarine) comes in 1 lb. packages, 4 sticks, or “cubes” to a package.  Each stick (cube) is 1/2 C. or 8 tablespoons.  So if a recipe calls for a cube of butter, you would use one stick (1/2 cup or 8 tablespoons).
Here’s a link that may help.

(The link doesn’t mention cubes at all, just (American) sticks. Presumably, kalon was so sure that cubes would be there as American usage that they didn’t look at the file.)

Other users said they’d never heard of this usage. But one (Imdee) wrote: “I agree with a cube of butter being a whole stick. My mom has always used that term.” Still others were shocked at the amount of butter that would then go into familiar recipes, for instance for fudge.

While I was searching fruitlessly, Kim found another relevant fact, one that I’d been dimly aware of since I first grocery-shopped in California decades ago: the sticks of butter here usually have different dimensions from those I was familiar with elsewhere in the country. In a picture:

(#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.

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.

12 Responses to “Sticks and cubes”

  1. arnold zwicky Says:

    From Karen Schaffer on Facebook:

    Here’s the explanation I read, Elgins vs West Coast stubbies. Just a matter of machinery, they claim.

  2. arnold zwicky Says:

    In e-mail, Dan Jurafsky (the foodlingnik) says, on the matter of differences in the referents (EC/WC, thin/thick, skinny/stubby), that he grew up on the West Coast and found the longer skinnier shape of East Coast butter strange the first time he saw it. But on the matter of terms for butter-units, he says he’s never heard cube.

  3. Jack H. Says:

    The package of butter in the refrigerator contains neither cubes nor sticks, but “quarters”.

  4. Christian P Johnson Says:

    Bicoastal childhood here. Born Seattle, moved to DC area at age 5, Seattle age 6, DC age 9, Seattle age 14, DC age 16.

    In most of the country, handwritten recipes will say “stick of butter.” But in the West, they’ll often say “cube of butter.” Basic familiarity with cooking proportions makes an error unlikely.

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      You’re not in any position to say what people do “in most of the country” or “in the West”; all you know is what you remember of your own limited experience. But clearly stick (of butter) is general in the US (so it’s in essentially all the dictionaries, with a clear meaning). Cube (of butter), on the other hand, is equally clearly localized — and, worse, it’s ambiguous. Even worse, it seems that a lot of people who use cube *don’t know* that other people have a different meaning for it, so the stage is set for serious errors.

  5. Susan Fischer Says:

    I’ve lived on both EC and WC. I’ve never heard the term “cube” for butter on either coast. The lines are starting to blur, however, thanks to Trader Joe’s, which now exists on both coasts. My local TJ here in New York carries their regular house brand of butter in the stubby California shape. However, their ORGANIC butter is in the longer skinnier shape on both coasts. That shape certainly fits my butter dishes better.

  6. xtnjohnson (@xtnjohnson) Says:

    Wikipedia has more on the packaging history:

  7. arnold zwicky Says:

    Bert Vaux posted these maps on Facebook:

    These are from Google Trends; from Wikipedia:

    Google Trends is a public web facility of Google Inc., based on Google Search, that shows how often a particular search-term is entered relative to the total search-volume across various regions of the world, and in various languages.

    Not at all easy to interpret as linguistic evidence. But at least in Google searches, it seems that cube of butter is a California thing.

  8. Robert Coren Says:

    I possess a recipe for a fruit tart, written out by my mother, which calls for “⅔ of a bar of butter”. This is curious, because to the best of my recollection my mother (born and bred in New York City) said “stick” for the standard quarter-pound, as do I. I have a vague memory that she got this recipe from a resort where she and my father spent some time over a couple of summers, and maybe she copied an original that used the term “bar”, which I have never otherwise heard applied to butter. (I’ve never heard “cube” either.)

    I have seen the shorter, thicker form here in Massachusetts. I think the Whole Foods house brand comes that way.

  9. 9watts Says:

    My sense of the cube nomenclatures is that in English we (mysteriously) don’t have a colloquial term for the stretched out variant of a cube (a term for a rectangular solid). No one I’ve talked to knows the word, and when you look it up you find all minds of weird words like cuboid or rectangular prism or parallelipiped, which no one actually uses anyway.
    So those who call the stick of butter a cube (my mother and my grandmother included) do so because, well we don’t have a word for the actual shape.

  10. Anna Says:

    I came here trying to figure out a recipe that called for 1/2 cube! There doesn’t seem to be much clarity, but since I believe butter to be a health food, I opted for using 1/2 stick rather than 1/2 ounce. The recipe turned out great.

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