SHANE’S EXCELLENT NEW WORDS: The genuine meaning of ersatz, with a bonus Mencken digression.


Counterfeit, phony, bogus … ersatz.

I used to be fond of saying that Miller Lite was ersatz beer, although strictly speaking, this isn’t true.

Flavorless, boring and a insult to the palate? Yes, very much so (less so?), but not ersatz.


[er-zahts, -sahts, er-zahts, -sahts]


1. serving as a substitute; synthetic; artificial: an ersatz coffee made from grain.


2. an artificial substance or article used to replace something natural or genuine; a substitute.

Origin of ersatz

1870-75; < German Ersatz a substitute (derivative of ersetzen to replace)

Ersatz is a German word, one unlikely to have migrated into English if not for Germany’s homefront experience during two world wars.

FAKING IT, by Christian Ford (Hogsalt)

Pity poor ersatz. In its native German, ersatz started out as a harmless word, connoting a simple substitute or replacement — a new part for something worn out. But two world wars and a whole lot of not-enough-food changed that forever, particularly on the lips of returning POWs who brought the word into English.

In a roundabout way, Ford’s well-considered (not ersatz at all) thoughts lead to corn, American style. Click through to see how.

It takes a certain way of thinking to break open a spiffy packet labeled “ersatz pepper” and filled with a teaspoon of ash — and scatter it over your meal, however ersatz it may already be. Food, that most corporeal foundation of society, was becoming notional, the site of sustenance moving from the belly to the mind.

Not that this came without some cost. There was ersatzkrankheit, “substitute sickness,” which came from eating too many foods that weren’t really what they should have been or weren’t even food at all. But there was another, more telling, neologism that emerged. This was ersatzmenchen — “substitute people,” a uncomfortably sinister term that reflected the front line’s endless appetite for its own kind of substitutes.

Ersatzkrankheit seems tailor-made to describe the result of ingesting too much fake (ersatz) news.

Tying together “ersatz” and the Great War, and adding the opportunity to make mention of my hero H.L. Mencken, I conclude with a quote from Gather at the River: Notes from the Post-Millennial South, by Hal Crowther

… It made Mencken a contrarian, a libertarian, and a political lone wolf. Do you have any idea how much courage – how much arrogance – it took for a 35-year-old newspaperman to sit in Baltimore and cheer for Germany in World War I, a minority of one flying in the teeth of one of the most poisonous spasms of jingoism America ever produced? It’s a true miracle he wasn’t lynched.

Risk life, limb and livelihood for a principle, for a prejudice? It’s impossible to place Mencken in a context the twenty-first century can understand, in our cultural cul-de-sac where the eloquent knights-errant of the editorial pages have been replaced by TV “news” shows geared to the depth and dignity of professional wrestling—tag teams of predictable hacks and eunuchs squealing in ersatz fury and quacking partisan platitudes. Seating Mencken on Crossfire would be like releasing a wolverine among neutered cats.