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?
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|
|A line drawing of the Ersatz Yorck|