Tuesday, April 5, 2011


Something brought this one to mind recently, I don't remember what, and then I saw it again in a blogpost condemning many things, including 'ersatz art' and thought, well, it's time to do it. I always think of 'ersatz' meaning fake or phony, but I realize as I contemplate it that it also has connotations (to me anyway) of empty, hollow, puffery. I'm guessing it's a direct steal from some other language, but that '-atz' ending isn't giving the clue I should probably be getting from it. Is it Yiddish? German? Russian? Made up?

We'll see.

Well, this is pretty good. Ersatz, in its original German, simply means replacement or substitute. And it is always a noun or part of a compound noun in its native language. It became an adjective in its crossover to English out of a simple misunderstanding. In what is once again turning out to be a military post, we have World War II Allied Forces POWs to thank for bringing it home.

There appear to be a couple of different points of contact. First, on the Eastern Front, the Germans fed prisoners what they called 'substitute bread' or ersatzbrot, which was made with inferior flour and 'extended' by various means, including adding sawdust. Secondly downed British airmen were frequently given ersatzkaffee, which had no real coffee in it, but was more of a grain drink. Because of these associations, ersatz became linked in English speaking minds with 'inferior' and what was actually a double noun in German was assumed to be an adjective and a noun in English, so that the 'ersatz' could be broken off and used as an adjective on its own.

SMS Yorck in the Kaiser Wilhelm Canal
For Germans, though, ersatz does not automatically have a pejorative cast to it. As proof of this, German used ersatz in the course of its early 20th century ship production. They would take the name of a former ocean going vessel and give the replacement ship the same name while it was in construction, not christening it with a new name until the vessel was complete. So the replacement ship for the sunken armored ship Yorck, which apparently blundered into Germany's own defensive minefields, was the Ersatz Yorck, and it and other replacement ships Ersatz Gneisenau and Ersatz Scharnhorst together comprised the Ersatz Yorck Line. Only Ersatz Yorck was ever even started and none were ever completed. Beginning a shipbuilding project with the name of a sunken battleship ever in the back of your mind-- especially a battleship that was accidentally sunk by your own side and which the captain was courtmartialed over--wouldn't have seemed the best way to go about this to me. But then, no one has asked me, have they?

A line drawing of the Ersatz Yorck


  1. So if Queen Elisabeth's family had not hushed up its German heritage, we'd now have the Ersatz Queen Elizabeth rather than the QEII!
    Detectives Beyond Borders
    "Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"

  2. Well, at least until the QEII was christened. Although to be honest, I only know about ships that didn't get that far.

    I hope that the Ersatz Queen Elizabeth would not apply to the queen herself. Maybe Helen Mirren could hold that certainly not inferior title.

  3. Hmm, I wonder what the German is for president elect or heir presumptive.

  4. Zukünftiger Präsident, apparently. It just means, 'future president', disappointly enough.

  5. Well, zukünft is no slouch, and probably a cognate of one of my favorite Dutch words for future (noun): toekomst.

  6. Until I looked it up, I was kind of hoping a Zukünftiger was some really cool kind of tiger. An ersatz tiger, maybe but a cool one.

  7. Will those zukünft tigers be better than the current ones?

  8. Well, they will at least have to be more cunning and resilient if they are to survive at all.

    Urban tigers--now there's an image.

  9. Now, let me copy-edit myself and recast that sentence so it ways what I meant:

    Well, zukünft is no slouch, and probably a cognate of one of my favorite Dutch words, toekomst, which means future (noun).

  10. I agree, I can't see naming a ship in the process of being built after a ship sunk by your own forces with a court marshaled captain a good thing.

    Also, I'd like to say how excited I was to actually know one of the not well known words put on here :)

  11. No, it probably wasn't a good omen, Glenna. The other two ships in the the Ersatz Yorck Line were named after sunken vessels as well, and they never even got off the drawing board.

    I'm glad you were excited, but it's not really like I know the words any better than you do--they're just things that come up in the course of reading or watching television. I doubt I've ever said ersatz in my life. Or at least never used it in a sentence.

  12. Seana

    I like any post about ships. I suppose I'm a ship geek.

    The other day I was wondering why so many Japanese vessels lost in the Tsunami were named the Something Something Maru.

    Fortunately and of course there is an entire wikipedia entry about this:


  13. Well, it's an interesting entry, but it isn't very satisfying in it's conclusion, is it? Reminds me of some of my own posts, and that's not praise.

    But speaking of posts, this one was pretty much a straight swipe from Wikipedia, which of course makes me wonder why the heck I'm bothering. Usually, I try to branch out a bit, but this time it was all just so conveniently there.

    I have obviously had no intention of talking about the military every other post, but it turns out so many of the words imported into our language have come to us in this way. I was even thinking of tagging the entries, which normally I'm too lazy to do.

    I have to say that I am quite taken with the Ersatz Yorck Line. It sounds like a ghost fleet.

  14. Ship geek, I don't know if you will check back here, but if so you might find this thread here.

  15. Seana

    Well I knew about the Kobyashi Maru since Star Trek II The Wrath of Khan, but I didnt know that all Japanese non military ships were called The Something Maru.

    Maru or moru also apparently is a popular name for cats who are associated with luck, which I think is why you see so many of those cats waving their paw things in so many Japanese businesses: in incapsulates luck and the idea of return (the circle) so that customers will come back.

  16. I thought you'd appreciate (and know) the Star Trek reference. And at least for me, you've kind of gotten to the heart of the maru=circle, return, luck, power meaning. I also liked one commenter's idea of maru being commonly given to prize possessions.