The sentence below comes from Word Smart II: How to Build a More Educated Vocabulary.

to bewilder; to amaze; to throw into confusion

  • The newborn baby's ability to speak fluent Italian confounded the experts, who were surprised to hear a newborn speaking anything but French.

Since this is just an example sentence of the word, confound, it has no other context to refer to. I think I know the meaning of the sentence literally. The syntax is not complex and there is no special usage of any word in it.

But I cannot figure out the use of the sentence, I mean, I don't know the situation the sentence can be fit into. In addition, though I cannot figure out the situation where this is used, somehow this sentence has some humour in it.

  • What is the situation being described and what humour does this sentence imply?
  • 3
    You know anonymous downvoters, you could leave a note explaining how the OP could improve his question, or why it is off-topic. Or something. Anything.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Oct 1, 2017 at 12:42
  • This is a very strange example sentence, and it would seem that most native speakers would have to stretch to fully explain it.
    – KumaAra
    Oct 12, 2017 at 4:50

2 Answers 2


I have a different view of the humour than @Shoe.

The humour is based on the fact that newborn babies do not speak at all! Babies generally learn to speak some time after their 1st birthday.

Thus, the first half of the example sentence:

The newborn baby's ability to speak fluent Italian confounded the experts,

Goes along with this fairly obvious fact of life. It would confound any expert, or indeed person, if a baby came out the womb able to talk. At this point in the parsing, the datum about speaking Italian is superfluous to the apparent point being made.

But the second half picks up on this "superfluous" choice of language, and drives it home as the entire point:

who were surprised to hear a newborn speaking anything but French.

At this point we, the reader, find:

  • We were wrong about the assumed point being made in the first half: we thought it was about speaking, but it's actually choice of language.
  • We are challenged with a datum that "experts" might expect a newborn baby to speak at all: what kind of "expert" would believe such nonsense?
  • We are given a silliness that a built-in ability to speak (which would be a biological / developmental phenomena) has something to do with choice of language - as if our genes know French but not Italian.

These 3 subconscious events add up to the sensation of rejection which is the release of humour.

  • 2
    I like your answer; it is more nuanced than mine. Maybe the lexicographer had in the back of his or her mind Molière's Le Médecin malgré lui, in which Molière makes fun of supposed experts. Hence the use of French in the example.
    – Shoe
    Oct 1, 2017 at 9:51
  • 5
    +1, plus it takes a dig at the French. It is a joke about the French.
    – ab2
    Oct 1, 2017 at 10:23
  • 5
    It is also a joke about the stereotypical attitude of the French to people from inferior cultures - i.e. everyone, except themselves. There's a story about the 19th century UK politician Disraeli who was at a dinner with his French counterpart. In a discussion on the relative merits of the two countries, the Frechman said "Well, my grandparents were French, my parents were French, I am French, and my children and grandchildren will be French. That is all I want from life". Disraeli replied, "But mon dieu, monsieur - Have you no ambitions at all????
    – alephzero
    Oct 1, 2017 at 10:28
  • 1
    We could add to this joke that the only language the experts should be surprised to hear from a newborn is English, because English has to be learned as a second language.
    – Xanne
    Oct 2, 2017 at 19:07

Presumably the so-called experts were expecting the new-born baby would be speaking French not Italian, because it was born to a French mother.

The humour resides in the fact that experts could believe that babies are born already able to speak their mother tongue fluently.

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