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Preface: Please forgive me for writing in English; I do not speak German (yet!).

ersatz (adj.) [:] 1875, from German Ersatz “units of the army reserve,” literally “compensation, replacement, substitute,” from ersetzen “to replace,”
from Old High German irsezzen, from ir-, unaccented variant of ur- (see ur-)
+ setzen “to set” (see set (v.)). As a noun, from 1892.

ur- [:] prefix meaning “original, earliest, primitive,” from German ur- out of, original,
from Proto-Germanic *uz- “out,” from PIE *ud- “up, out” (see out (adv.)) […]

How did the bolded morphemes combine to mean to replace in ersetzen?

The meaning of the prefix ur- as out of, original seems to contradict the meaning of to replace, because something out of (a predecessor), original implies a sense of firstness that a replacement lacks. Please expose and explain the hidden, missing semantic drifts and links.

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    Would reading it as "putting something in place of the original" help you? – Stephie Sep 16 '15 at 4:10
  • @Stephie +1. Yes, that helps! Thanks. How did you deduce that interpretation? The steps and thought processes eluded me. – Greek - Area 51 Proposal Sep 16 '15 at 4:13
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    I can only offer the gut feeling of a native speaker (else I would have written an answer). But you only have two elements, original and put in a place, set, there is no conjunction given. No need to "put the original". From similar patterns that do so ("absetzen") you can often, but not always, deduce a common pattern. I sense a deviation here. Compare the multitude of compound nouns, e.g. chocolate bisquits vs. dog bisquits, one being with, one for something. – Stephie Sep 16 '15 at 4:39
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Maybe it would help to look at the etymology of setzen, too:

set (v.)

Old English settan (transitive) “cause to sit, put in some place, fix firmly; build, found; appoint, assign,” from Proto-Germanic *(bi)satjan “to cause to sit, set” (cognates: Old Norse setja, Swedish sätta, Old Saxon settian, Old Frisian setta, Dutch zetten, German setzen, Gothic satjan), causative form of PIE *sod-, variant of *sed- (1) “to sit” (see sit (v.)). Also see set (n.2).

Intransitive sense from c. 1200, “be seated.” Used in many disparate senses by Middle English; sense of “make or cause to do, act, or be; start” and that of “mount a gemstone” attested by mid-13c. Confused with sit since early 14c. Of the sun, moon, etc., “to go down,” recorded from c. 1300, perhaps from similar use of the cognates in Scandinavian languages. To set (something) on “incite to attack” (c. 1300) originally was in reference to hounds and game.

Combine the bolded part together with the etymology of ur- and you get something akin to: etw. ersetzen = to put sth. in the place of the original (as @Stephie pointed out in her comment).

As a side note, the etymology of replace comes from a slightly different perspective: to put something back to the original place (of something else)

  • "replace" probably sounded as weird to me (native german speaker) as "ersetzen" did to you once I started to think about its etymology – hoffmale Oct 3 '15 at 22:44

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