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Artificial vs Factitious vs Synthetic vs Ersatz

Artificial, Factitious, Synthetic and Ersatz all mean not brought into being by nature but by human art or effort or by some process of manufacture. They are not often interchangeable because of differences in some of their implications and in their range of application.

Artificial is far more extensive in scope than the others. It may be applied to anything that is not produced by natural conditions but is in some sense a human creation.

  • most of the inequalities in the existing world are artificial
  • the family is a natural society, the state is an artificial society

In law a corporation or an institution that may be the subject of rights or duties is called an artificial person in distinction from a human being, who is a natural person.

Artificial is also applicable to something produced by human effort that has its counterpart in nature.

  • Civilization may be said to have begun when the artificial heat and light of burning fuel were first used to supplement the natural heat and light of the sun.

Artificial is applied also to things which imitate and sometimes serve the same purposes as something found in nature but which are of quite different origin and constitution and usually of inferior worth.

  • artificial flowers of wax
  • artificial jewels made from colored glass

Artificial is also applicable to persons or to their acts, utterances, and behavior; it then implies lack of naturalness or spontaneity and often connotes affectation, conventionality, or formalism.

  • set him to write poetry, he is limited, artificial, and impotent; set him to write prose, he is free, natural, and effective
  • the strained artificial romanticism of Kotzebue’s lugubrious dramas

Factitious is applied largely to such intangible things as emotions, states of mind, situations, relations, reasons, which are not naturally caused or are not the product of real circumstances but are invented or worked up for one’s own ends or purposes.

  • create a factitious demand for shares of a stock
  • the vogue was short-lived because factitious
  • his trick of doing nothing with an air, his salon manners and society smile, were but skin-deep, factitious

they stood for Parliament and played the game of politics upon factitious issues
H. G. Wells

Synthetic is applicable to an end product so far removed from its ultimate natural source that it has become a wholly different thing.

  • synthetic perfumes originally dug from the ground as coal

It is preferred to artificial when the noun modified denotes a class to which the thing in question actually belongs and it is free from the implication of inferiority that commonly clings to artificial; thus, artificial silk is not silk since it is woven from synthetic fibers which are fibers man-made from substances that are not themselves fibrous.

To some degree differences in usage are purely idiomatic; thus, one ordinarily refers to synthetic rubber but artificial food coloring, synthetic fabrics but artificial flavoring.

Ersatz is frequently used as a synonym of artificial or synthetic always, however, with the implication of use as a substitute; it is used chiefly with the name of a natural product.

  • ersatz coffee
  • ersatz butter
  • ersatz wool

Thereby implying imitation and inferiority and, often, suggesting a cheap or disagreeable origin.

  • the search for ersatz  . . . materials was unceasing. Sugar from sawdust; flour from potato meal; gasoline from wood and coal