A non-ersatz etymology of the word ersatz

ersatz: being an artificial/inferior substitute

Ersatz is a great adjective to use when you want to degrade something and sound really smart at the same time. But I most love this word for its story of how it sneaked its way into the English language.

Ersatz is a German noun that means substitute or replacement. In German, it doesn’t carry the negative connotation it adopted when it came to English—and this is likely because English speakers started using the word when Britain’s relationship with Germany was, um, strained.

One of the ways we started using the word is from British POWs during World War II. Their Nazi captors would serve them ersatzbrot (replacement bread), which was made of the lowest quality flour, potato starch, and . . . sawdust. They also received ersatzkaffe (substitute coffee). Though not comprised of wood remnants, the drink was also not a big hit with British prisoners.

When these soldiers were released, they went home and no doubt told stories about this poor-quality food, leading Brits of the World War II era to use ersatz as an adjective to describe a wide array of less than great things.

That is such an ersatz painting. It looks like my cat threw up on the canvas.
Eww. What an ersatz attempt at fashion. Her dress looks like my cat’s throw up.

Fun fact: In English, we use ersatz as an adjective, but in German, it can only be a noun. This is because German makes compound nouns by smashing two nouns together, such as ersatzkaffe [ersatz (substitute) and kaffe (coffee)]. In English, we would keep the two words separate to make ersatz coffee, with ersatz being the adjective and coffee being the noun.

Shameless plug: There is an awesome (the opposite of ersatz) new blog I hope you will check out: Parsemez Your Day. My friend Allie, who might literally be obsessed with the French language, just stared it. In this blog, Allie shares interesting and entertaining French words the English language hasn’t adopted—yet.

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