An episode of Mythbusters about a steam machine gun and beating polygraph tests referred to the "butter zone". What does the phrase mean?
Onelook.com couldn't find a definition. Urban dictionary has a definition, but I don't trust UD.
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When Adam talks about the "butter zone", this means they've gotten all the experiment's parameters "just right".
One of Urban Dictionary's definition is actually quite similar to Adam's usage:
The area of profitability that sits between not enough and too much. The sweet spot, business-wise.
Another term would be the Goldilocks zone:
The habitable zone is also called the Goldilocks zone, a metaphor of the children's fairy tale of Goldilocks and the Three Bears, in which a little girl chooses from sets of three items, ignoring the ones that are too extreme (large or small, hot or cold, etc.), and settling on the one in the middle, which is "just right".
It's primarily used in cosmology and astronomy as an informal synonym for the habitable zone. But it can act as an easily understandable general term as well. For example, educators may refer to the Goldilocks zone of development:
Whereas practice can be completely focused and rehearsed, the Goldilocks Zone of Development can be in new and unfamiliar conditions, and learning new skills while using current skills.
So far, the best explanation for the term I've found suggests it's from skiing-snowboarding slang. The "butter zone" refers to a section of the ski (hereafter 'ski' will do double duty for ski and snowboard) toward but not at the tip...that is, behind the tip. This zone on the ski is used to perform a manoeuver known as the "butter", also known as the "muffin". Here's a description of the manouver:
Butter (the muffin) - A manoeuver where one shifts weight all over the nose of the board and then performs a rotational move such as a 180° or 360°. Typically results in the spreading of snow as if the board were a knife spreading butter.
(See Snowboarding Terms.)
This Line Skis Butter Zone™ Technology video shows exactly where the zone is on the ski, and provides an additional description of the manoeuver that uses that zone.
I've been unable to find a concrete date for this use that establishes it is earlier than the use in the 1995 Hackers movie, but given the vague use in the movie script, the phrase seems unlikely to have originated with the script. The metaphor given for the ski manoeuver, and hence the zone, on the other hand, is explicit.
00:45:28 We're sorry! Just looking at your fly laptop.
00:45:31 It's hype, you know.
00:45:32 You're in the butter zone now, baby.
00:45:37 Yeah, it is.
00:45:40 I want to triple the RAM
There are more videos of the manoeuver, at "Snowboard Trick Tips: Butters".1
I see why you don't trust the urban dictionary definition. I've NEVER heard it used in that way.
When Adam and Jamie refer to the butter zone they are talking about a narrow range of parameters that will produce the correct result. It's similar to sweet spot.
When I looked on the web I got several results referring to computers, but they all seem different. Apparently the phrase has adopted a new meaning.
I don't know the origin of the phrase, only a guess, so I'll leave that out.
I have no particular etymology to support this, but my family have been using the phrase since long before 1995. I would assume it has something to do with the very narrow zone in which butter can actually be used, between being fully melted and frozen, or too hard.
I'd be willing to bet it has farming roots, but have no proof of such.