Dear Word Detective: When and how did the expression “paste-eaters” come into usage? That’s one of the funniest, but apt, expressions I’ve heard in a long time! — Eric D. Cohen.
Funny and apt, yes, but also perhaps a little bit cruel and unfair. After all, there are worse things to eat than paste, and very few people eat so much paste that they could be accused of depriving others. Paste eating is also usually a very quiet habit, inasmuch as it is difficult to babble with one’s mouth full of paste. Of course, that leaves us with the problem of explaining the deafening cacophony of political debate in the US, in which paste eaters seem to play a leading role.
A “paste eater” in the original literal sense is a small schoolchild (usually male) who develops a fondness for the taste of the white paste traditionally used by students in the lower grades to glue bits of construction paper together. Usually kept in small pots with a brush attached to the underside of the lid, the paste invariably ends up on everything but the paper, especially one’s fingers, and most kids become familiar with the taste. (I thought it tasted awful, personally, though I loved the smell of rubber cement, which may explain a lot.) But there was almost always one kid in the class who regarded paste as a barfly regards salted peanuts, and would surreptitiously eat big globs of the stuff when the teacher wasn’t looking. Such behavior was considered weird even by the liberal standards of second grade, and the paste eater, who was almost always weird in several other respects, was usually shunned as the class “nerd” or “dork.”
Probably the most famous “paste eater” in popular culture today is Ralph Wiggum, a character on The Simpsons TV series. A cheerfully clueless eight-year old known for his bizarre proclamations (“I found a moon rock in my nose!”), Ralph has been caught on several occasions eating paste and is often depicted with a pot of paste in his hand. According to the show’s website, “Despite his fractured English, paste eating and occasional ringworm, Ralph has lots of friends — all imaginary,” but for a paste eater, Ralph is well treated. In the real world, “paste eater” has long been derogatory shorthand for someone regarded as mentally deficient, emotionally maladjusted, and socially ostracized. An adult described as a “paste eater” is someone considered not only clueless and uncool, but extremely stupid as well.
Just when “paste eater” entered the general slang vocabulary is unclear. A book about one-room schoolhouses in the early 20th century, titled “Schoolhouses of Minnesota” (available at Google Books), contains a detailed reminiscence of paste eating, so the phenomenon and epithet have probably been around since the 19th century. As popular slang, “paste eater” really only became popular with the growth of the internet in the 1990s and the rise of political blogs on which “paste eater” became an instantly understandable way to slam the opposition. As a derogatory slur, “paste eater” has the advantage of being nearly universally understood, and will be as long as small children and paste are together when the teacher’s back is turned.