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.
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.
Illinois' Ersatz Proposes Recycling-Manufacturing District in Gary, Ind.(Originated from Post-Tribune, Gary, Ind.)
May 24, 1995; GARY, IndMay 25--Two former officials of Maywood, Ill., believe they may have an answer to two of Gary's most pressing problems -...