In the German class T asked us the meaning of the word ‘Ersatz’. I vaguely remembered having come across the English word in an article where A.S.Byatt had spoken critically of the Harry Potter series and those who read it. It had a negative connotation, but I could not recollect its precise meaning. “Alternative”, he answered, but that somehow did not seem fully appropriate for its English counterpart. Back home, I looked up Wikipedia:
Ersatz is a German name (literal meaning: “substitute”) for products, especially chemical compounds and provisions developed in war-times when shortage of certain goods was imminent. It is associated with cheap replacement, low quality and disgust. The word surfaced during World War I in Germany because the allied fleet cut off all transport to Germany by sea.
Ersatz products that were developed were, for example: synthetic rubber (buna produced from oil), benzene for heating oil (coal gas) and coffee, using roasted beans, which were not coffee beans.
Although it is used only as an adjective in English, Ersatz can function in German either as a noun on its own, or as an adjective in compound nouns such as Ersatzteile (spare parts) or Ersatzkaffee (coffee substitute).
The wartime experience of ersatz products is satirized in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, which features a line of Victory products, such as Victory Gin and Victory Cigarettes, which are uniformly vile.
Later, I found the quote from A.S.Byatt where she used the word in the context I had first read it. Speaking of adults reading Harry Potter, she said that “they don’t have the skills to tell ersatz magic from the real thing, for as children they daily invested the ersatz with what imagination they had.”
Etymology offers a fascinating path towards cementing a word in memory.