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Ersatz is a German word literally meaning substitute or replacement. Although it is used as an adjective in English, it is a noun in German. In German orthography noun phrases formed are usually represented as a single word, forming compound nouns such as Ersatzteile ("spare parts") or Ersatzspieler ("substitute player"). While the term used in English often implies that the substitution is of unsatisfactory or inferior quality compared with the "real thing", it has both connotations in German, depending on the other noun; e.g. Ersatzteile ("spare parts") is a technical expression without any implication about quality, whereas in other cases it may mean things of poorer quality, e.g. Ersatzkaffee (coffee not made from coffee beans).
World War I
In the opening months of World War I, replacement troops for battle-depleted German infantry units were drawn from lesser-trained Ersatz Corps, who were less effective than the troops they replaced. Also, the Allied naval blockade of Germany throttled maritime commerce with Germany, forcing Germany to develop substitutes for products such as chemical compounds and provisions. Ersatz products developed during this time included: synthetic rubber (produced from petroleum), benzene for heating oil (coal gas), tea composed of ground raspberry leaves or catnip, and coffee substitute using roasted acorns or beans instead of coffee beans.
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 ship 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 of 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.
World War II
In World War II, Ersatzbrot (replacement bread) made of potato starch, frequently stretched with extenders such as sawdust, was furnished to prisoners of war. This practice was prevalent on the Eastern front and at the many Nazi labour and death camps. As a result, the word ersatz entered as a pejorative into Russian and other Slavic languages.
In Britain, this was additionally popularised as an 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 prisoners of war were given ersatz goods such as Ersatzkaffee, an inferior Getreidekaffee or "grain coffee" as a coffee substitute by their German captors.
When people are asked to choose an ersatz good, they tend to prefer a substitute from the same taxonomic category as the good they desire to a goal-derived substitute, one that meets the same goal. For instance, a person who desires a gourmet chocolate is more likely to choose another chocolate as a substitute than a different kind of dessert or snack. Because such "within-category" substitutes are easier to compare to the desired good, however, those that are inferior are less effective than "cross-category" substitutes that fulfill the same goal. People are more able to notice their inferiority during consumption, which leads them to be less satisfying than goal-derived substitutes from different taxonomic categories.
- "Ersatz - Definition and More from the Free Merriam-Webster Dictionary". Merriam-webster.com. 2012-08-31. Retrieved 2013-08-18.
- Huh, Young Eun; Vosgerau, Joachim; Morewedge, Carey K. (2016-06-01). "More Similar but Less Satisfying Comparing Preferences for and the Efficacy of Within- and Cross-Category Substitutes for Food". Psychological Science 27 (6): 894–903. doi:10.1177/0956797616640705. ISSN 0956-7976. PMID 27142460.