I’m reading Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain in the English translation by John E. Woods, and I have come across a passage I don’t quite understand. The character Joachim is telling Hans about a particularly illiterate lady who refers to the assistant, Krokowski as the “eighty camp”, for which, according to the book, “you had to sit there and swallow it without a trace of a smile.” Well, I know the German for both eighty and camp and as far as I can tell, they don’t resemble any word I’ve found for assistant. It doesn’t make sense in English either, as far as I can tell. I was hoping that someone could explain why this would be funny or make sense.

This lady also says “things like ‘decentfiction’ — in all seriousness.” This woman claims that another lady carried a “stirletto” around with her. Clearly these aren’t words, but I have a hard time understanding what it is she meant to say. I’m sure someone who knows German better would have a better idea than I.

If anyone wants something more specific, it's on page 15 of ISBN 0-679-44183-2 in paperback. Or right here.

Here’s the corresponding paragraph in german:

… Da Hans Castorp wieder vom Lachen ergriffen wurde, lachte auch er [d. h. Joachim], was er herzlich zu genießen schien, und ließ andere komische Dinge hören, um der Ausgelassenheit Nahrung zu geben. Eine Dame sitze mit ihm am Tische, namens Frau Stöhr, ziemlich krank übrigens, eine Musikergattin aus Cannstatt, – die sei das Ungebildetste, was ihm jemals vorgekommen. »Desinfiszieren«, sage sie, – aber in vollem Ernst. Und den Assistenten Krokowski nenne sie den »Fomulus«. Das müsse man nun hinunterschlucken, ohne das Gesicht zu verziehen. Außerdem sei sie klatschsüchtig, wie übrigens die meisten hier oben, un einer anderen Damen, Frau Iltis, sage sie nach, sie trage ein »Sterilett«. »Sterilett nennt sie das, – das ist doch unbezahlbar!« Und halb liegend, gegen die Lehnen ihrer Stühle zurückgeworfen, lachten sie so sehr, daß ihnen der Leib bebte und sie fast gleichzeitig Schluckauf bekamen.

You’ll find it in the third part (Im Restaurant) of the first chapter.

  • 2
    @ClayShannon: I don't have the english text available, but i'm almost sure that the translation's "eighty camp" replaces the "Fomulus" in the german version.
    – tohuwawohu
    Commented Nov 28, 2013 at 9:47

4 Answers 4


The eighty camp is a malapropism (thanks to Carsten Schultz for the term) of Aide-de-camp.

  • 3
    Very nice! Eighty camp is IMHO even better than the original Fomulusfor Famulus (i didn't find anything *Fomulus" alludes to). The "stirletto" is a "Sterilett" in the german version...
    – tohuwawohu
    Commented Nov 25, 2013 at 16:23

It sounds like the character you're talking about is "Frau Stöhr". As you said the character of "Frau Stöhr" is supposed to be quite an uneducated person. In the German version of the book, they basically demonstrate that by having her use words, that may or may not be actual words, but that phonetically sound like the word she actually wants to say.(Edit: This is a stilistic device called malapropisms) For example she says "desinfiszieren" (not a real word) instead of "desinfizieren", or "kosmisch" and "kosmetisch" (both real words)

That said, I couldn't think of or find out what the "eighty camp" is supposed to be. I would suspect that this is simply a case where the translator wanted to keep this idea of phonetically similar, but different words, and it didn't always work out as good as in the original and became confusing instead.


The original word fomulus in the book is a malapropism for famulus.


Fa|mu|lus, der; -, -se u. …li [lat. famulus = Diener, Gehilfe, H. u.] (veraltet):

  1. Famulant.

  2. Student, der einem Hochschullehrer assistiert.

So the translator to English chose something similar. In my Spanish translation they just write fomulus, and one is left alone to interpret it!


As the other answers have shown, the key is "malapropism". Readers try to find an explanation what the mysterious words really mean, and perhaps that it is the main purpose: To puzzle readers. The translation tries to find corresponding English malapropisms, but they do not necessarily resemble the German orginals (for example "eighty camp"). Therefore studying the German text will not neccessarily help to decode the English pun.

I think it has been clarified that

  1. Desinfiszieren = Desinfizieren / decentfiction = desinfection

  2. Fomulus = Famulus / eighty camp = Aide-de-camp

The origin of the German "Sterilett" is certainly the French "stérilet". See here and here. It vaguely resembles "Korsett" and suggests that Frau Stöhr believes that a "stérilet" is an article of clothing (which would be a possible understanding of sie trage ein »Sterilett«). There are also "psychological explanations" as here, but in my opinion we do not need them. The English "stirletto" may also refer to Stiletto.

Also have a look at this text.

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