Word of the Week: Ersatz

Word: ersatz

Pronunciation: ER-sahts / ER-zahts / er-ZAHTS

Part of Speech: adjective


  1. made or used as a substitute for something else
  2. not real or genuine

Source: Oxford Dictionaries

Today’s Word of the Week was suggested to me by my mom, who discovered it through her most recent TV obsession: Downton Abbey. Apparently it’s a word that’s been used a few times in the series, and since I had come across it before while studying vocabulary for standardized tests, I agreed that it would be an interesting word to include in this segment.

According to Oxford Dictionaries, there are two similar definitions for this adjective. An “ersatz” product is a substitute for a higher-quality version of that item, while anything else defined as “ersatz” is simply fake. Either way, it’s used to refer to something that isn’t the real thing. Now if you’re thinking this word sounds a little different from all the others featured in my Word of the Week posts before, it’s because this one is the first in the segment to come neither from Latin nor from Greek. “Ersatz” is actually a German noun meaning “replacement”, which also functions as a part in compound words (most notably Ersatzkaffee, or “ersatz coffee”).

So how did this German word seep its way into English vocabulary? “Ersatz” evidently started being recognized outside of Germany during World War I (hence its use in Downton Abbey, or so I presume), as it was used in terms referring to replacement military troops (Ersatz Corps) and substitute products developed during the war. Its transition from a noun in one language to an adjective in the other is due to grammatical differences between English and German; for instance, while a word like Ersatzkaffee is a compound noun in German, English-speakers who easily recognize the second half as “coffee” would logically assume the first syllables make up the adjective describing the familiar noun (which would probably translate to something like “false coffee”).

It’s worth noting that while the word can have either a positive or a negative connotation in German, its English uses generally imply inferiority. As far as how one might use it in writing, my limited experience with the word tells me it likely fits best in historical fiction, as it does have an archaic feel to it (when was the last time you heard someone call something “ersatz” as opposed to just “fake”?) Still, it could also appear in modern dialogue involving academically accomplished characters (such as Leonard’s neuroscientist/psychiatrist mother analyzing Howard and Raj’s friendship as an “ersatz homosexual relationship” on The Big Bang Theory). In my opinion, the word’s historical origins alone make it interesting, so feel free to get creative with it. Whether you choose to use it in a World War-themed novel or a conversation between characters of differing linguistic backgrounds, “ersatz” can be a great word for adding a foreign touch to your writing. Have fun!

What are your thoughts on this word? Any suggestions for future “Word of the Week” featured words?

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