AskDefine | Define ersatz

Dictionary Definition

ersatz adj : artificial and inferior; "ersatz coffee"; "substitute coffee" [syn: substitute] n : an artificial or inferior substitute or imitation

User Contributed Dictionary

see Ersatz



From the Ersatz; and from the German verb ersetzen, "to replace".


  • /ˈɜːsæts/ italbrac RP
  • /ˈɝsæts/ italbrac US


  1. Made in imitation; artificial, especially of an inferior quality.
    Back then, we could only get ersatz coffee.


  • 1929, "Zeppelining," Time, 16 Sep.,
    Ersatzgas, Ersatzpfennige. Ersatz has become a brave word in Germany. As a substantive it means War Reparations. As part of compounded words it means substitute.
  • 2001, The New Yorker, 15 Oct,
    The avant-garde's opposite number, in Greenberg's scheme, is kitsch, "ersatz culture"—art for capitalism's new man (who turns out to be no different from Fascism's or Communism's new man).
  • 2003, The New Yorker, 17 & 24 Feb,
    The NATO visitors watched an ersatz eighteenth-century dance (complete with powdered wigs and simulated copulation) that might have been considered obscene had it not been so amusing.
  • 2004, The New Yorker, 31 May,
    The crowd wandered out to a huge party on the ersatz city blocks of the Paramount lot.


  1. Something made in imitation; an effigy or substitute.




  • "ersatz" in Encarta® World English Dictionary [North American Edition] © & (P)2007 Microsoft Corporation.
  • "ersatz" in the Wordsmyth Dictionary-Thesaurus © Wordsmyth 2002.
  • "ersatz" in Cambridge Advanced Learner's Dictionary © Cambridge University Press 2007.
  • "ersatz" in Compact Oxford English Dictionary, © Oxford University Press, 2007.

Extensive Definition

For the record label, see Ersatz Audio
Ersatz is a German word literally meaning substitute or replacement. Although it is used as an adjective in English, Ersatz can function in German only as a noun on its own, or as a part in compound nouns such as Ersatzteile (spare parts) or Ersatzspieler (substitute player). While the English term often implies that the substitution is of unsatisfactory or inferior quality, this connotation does not necessarily exist in the German context. For example, "Ersatzbutter" or "Butter-Ersatz" could be used as a generic term for margarine as a substitute for butter.
In English, "ersatz" arose as a pejorative adjective from the experiences of thousands of U.S., British, and other English-speaking combat personnel, primarily airmen, who were captured in the European Theater of Operations during World War II. These Allied Kriegsgefangene (prisoners of war) were served Ersatzkaffee (replacement coffee) by their German captors, who had no real coffee to offer them. Needless to say, this substitute drink (a Getreidekaffee or "grain coffee") was not popular with the POWs, who longed for the real thing.
As to why Ersatz is a noun only in German but an adjective in English, the explanation is the German language's greater propensity for building new words out of existing ones by combining nouns. In the case of Ersatzkaffee, the latter two syllables were recognizably "coffee" to English-speaking ears so the first half of this word was logically but mistakenly assumed to be an adjective, when it is in fact the first half of a single German word. In this way, "ersatz" came to be an English adjective connoting something inferior if not entirely phony, as when one thing masquerades for another.

Historical context

The term ersatz probably gained international attention during World War I, when Allied fleets cut off all sea transports to Germany, forcing Germany to develop substitutes for products like chemical compounds and provisions. Ersatz products developed during this time included: synthetic rubber (buna produced from oil), benzene for heating oil (coal gas), tea composed of ground raspberry leaves or catnip, and coffee, using roasted beans, which were not coffee beans. Though a similar situation arose in Germany during World War II, this connotation with the term ersatz has sunk into oblivion in present Germany.
Another example of the word's usage in Germany exists in the German naval construction programs of the beginning of the 20th century. In this context the phrasing "Ersatz (shipname)" indicates that a new, larger, or more capable ship was a replacement for an aging or lost previous vessel. Because German practice was not to reveal the name of a new ship until its launch, this meant that the vessel was known by its "Ersatz (shipname)" throughout its construction. At the end of World War I the last three ships of the planned Mackensen class battlecruisers were redesigned and initially known simply as the Ersatz Yorck class, since the first ship was considered to be a replacement for the lost armored cruiser, Yorck.

Ersatz capitalism

Relating to the scholarly work of Kunio Yoshihara, ersatz capitalism refers to the early rising economies of East Asia and their dynamic and technologically intensive development. Yoshihara's definition classifies Japanese, South Korean and Taiwanese nations' capitalist drives as what might be called "pseudo capitalism." This refers to such government and business actors' abilities to utilize a nation's comparative advantages and artificially motivate an economy toward higher-end economic activities, specifically similar to those of developed Western nations, including areas such as capital investments and technologically intensive production.
ersatz in German: Ersatz
ersatz in French: Ersatz
ersatz in Italian: Surrogato
ersatz in Polish: Surogat
ersatz in Russian: Эрзац

Synonyms, Antonyms and Related Words

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