February 11, 2022, by Brigitte Nerlich
From the start of the pandemic in the distant spring of 2020 linguists and communication researchers have kept an eye on language. They observed the emergence of new words, such as ‘covid’ and ‘covidiots’ and the increase in use and understanding of older or jargon words, such as pandemic, coronavirus, lockdown, social distancing, bubbles, and more recently ‘endemic’, and many more. To this list one can now add the term ‘superimmunity’.
As a recent BBC news article (which nicely demystifies the concept of immunity using an ‘army’ of metaphors) points out in relation to ‘supercharged immunity’: “it’s being talked about now more than ever before. The pandemic has introduced a new vocabulary into our lives. We talk about natural immunity in people who have recovered from Covid and immunity from vaccines”… and much more.
So far, linguists have tended to focus mainly on single words and metaphors (or sometimes clusters of metaphors, such as football or fire metaphors). I think in the future we should also study groups of words or ‘semantic fields’ and how they are shifting over time. Why? Because, as the linguist Stephen Ullmann said in the 1960s, a “semantic field does not merely reflect the ideas, values and outlook of contemporary society, but it crystallizes and perpetuates them: it hands down to the oncoming generation a ready-made analysis of experience through which the world will be viewed until the analysis becomes so palpably inadequate and out-of-date that the whole field has to be recast.” (Semantics, 1963: 250)
Semantic fields and superimmunity
Semantic or lexical fields, that is, groups of words that share a similar concept, theme or subject, have been studied since at least 1856 when Karl Friedrich von Nägelsbach became interested in ‘word chains’, ‘chains of associations’ and ‘chains of representations’ in Latin (I just had to get that in, sorry!). Many more scholars after him engaged in this type of study, most famously Jost Trier who studied German intellectual words in the 1930s.
The study of semantic fields can provide insights into how different languages structure the way we see and talk about the world. It might be interesting to use this lens to study ‘immunity’ in English and other languages.
For this amateurish post I assume that the semantic field around ‘immunity’ might contain words and concepts, such as, indeed, superimmunity, but of course also immunology, immune system, herd immunity, natural immunity, immunisation, immune, vaccination, anti-vaxx, infection, reinfection, breakthrough infection, resistance, pandemic, epidemic, endemic, innate, long-lasting, mild, severe, as well as boost, enhance, increase, support, acquire, build and so on and so forth.
Many of these words have become highly contested and new words are sprouting in the field every day. In this post I pick one flower out of this field or patchwork of fields (and I haven’t even looked at the scientific/medical concepts clustering around immunity), namely ‘superimmunity’, which has attracted some recent media attention in the context of covid.
It should be stressed that much has been written about immunity and the politics of immunity in medical sociology circles, but I can’t survey that research here. One book that I’d love to read, but which is not quite out yet, is a book by Mark Davis entitled Selling Immunity. According to the blurb, it “explores the rich metaphorical powers of immunity and the life narratives it inspires with reference to the talk of scientists, immunology texts and popular science magazines”!!!
Immunity in the medical sense is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “The state of being insusceptible or resistant to a noxious agent or process, esp. a pathogen or infectious disease, which may occur naturally or be produced by prior exposure or immunization; a state of rapid and strong responsiveness to a specific antigen produced by exposure to it. Also more generally: normal or adequate resistance to disease.”
Superimmunity is not defined in the dictionary but seems to be mostly used in nutritional discourse, although I saw it once mentioned with relation to phages…..
To find out more about how superimmunity is used at present, and thus what meanings it has in society, I looked at the news database Nexis and ferreted around a bit (don’t say I haven’t got a ‘method’!). Using the search word ‘superimmunity’ for All English Language News gave me over 800 hits which I could, of course not examine in their entirety… but I tried to get the gist of how the word was used over time.
Superimmunity – diet, vitamins and wellness
When studying popular representations of probiotics and then the microbiome, we found that these intersect with popular conceptions of immunity, especially when it comes to boosting vitality for example. So, I was not surprised to find that the term ‘superimmunity’ was initially (from around 1980 onwards) used mainly in the context of talk about diet, nutrition, wellness etc.
Outlets like Readers Digest came up, as well as names like Dr Oz. At the end of the 1980s a book by Leo Galland, Dian Dincin Buchman entitled Superimmunity for Kids made the rounds, giving parents advice on children’s diet. Then in the 2010s a book by Joel Fuhrmann – one of many – was discussed: Super Immunity: The Essential Nutrition Guide for Boosting Your Body’s Defenses to Live Longer, Stronger, and Disease Free.
Superimmunity lexically coexisted with superfoods and was sold as a superweapon to be used to defend your body, including from superbugs. Super!
Superimmunity – bats, covid and illness
Things changed around 2018, when there was some discussion about bats having some sort of superimmunity to respiratory diseases. Discussions then went from bats and coronaviruses to bats and the Covid-19 coronavirus that we have all come to know and hate.
Much of this played out around a virologist, Arinjay Banerjee, nick-named the ‘bat-man’. On 20 March 2020, The Times of India reported him as saying very sensibly: “’We shall all get through this through collaboration and good science.’ But before that there’s a myth he wants to bust. ‘This coronavirus was not made in a lab. Please do not spread rumours,’ says Banerjee, who along with his professor at University of Saskatchewan were dubbed ‘Batmen’ three years ago. You may want to believe this white caped crusader in his lab coat, who was among the few worldwide to unlock the mystery behind bat ‘super immunity’ to fatal respiratory diseases, a knowledge that could lead to new therapies for slowing down disease progression in humans and even reduce death rates in the future”.
Around the same time, advice from those ‘selling immunity’ was adapted to the covid context. On 5 April 2020 States News Service announced a talk by Dr Fuhrman who “will speak about one of the primary ways to build super immunity, especially while under quarantine. You will learn the worlds [sic] best foods to boost your health, performance and longevity. Joining us on the webinar is John Allen Mollenhauer ‘JAM’, an in-the-game entrepreneur, Performance-Lifestyle author and coach who will ask some of the most pressing questions.” That sort of says it all…
We can see here how scientific and promotional discourses around ‘superimmunity’ began to rub up against each other in the new context of covid.
On 6 October 2020, Muscat Daily published an article headlined “Immune boosters” using well-known metaphors of fighting off disease and boosting your immune system: “With the COVID-19 pandemic unwilling to relent, prospects of a vaccine/cure still distant, and frequent news about known victims disturbing your peace of mind, it’s high time you do something to build up your own defence, if you haven’t done it yet. […] While we all know that citrus fruits and vegetables are super immunity boosters, the fact is, even red meat (beef and lamb) provides iron, zinc, vitamins B12 and B6, all of which play an important role in keeping the immune system in check.”
Hybrid and hyped superimmunity
Then, on 1 July 2021 a study appeared in the journal Science and was widely reported in the media. It seemed to show that patients that recovered from Covid-19 may acquire super-immunity against covid variants. A month later the press reported on research indicating that Covid-19 vaccines may trigger superimmunity. That was followed in September by reports that double-vaccinated people who had also had coronavirus may acquire superimmunity. There was a new superimmunity on the block: hybrid superimmunity.
Now hyperbole set in. The Telegraph asked in a headline (9 September 2021): ‘Have you got ‘superhuman immunity’? To this we can also add the headline from the BBC article on immunity quoted at the beginning: ‘supercharged immunity’. Another headline announced that “The quest for super immunity to the pandemic has started” (AFR online, 18 October, 2021) or “‘Superimmunity’ to COVID-19, one of the great riddles of the pandemic (CE Noticias Financieras English, 27 October, 2021) Quests, riddles and puzzles are words related to science in the making. They are normally not used in the context of talk about vitamins for boosting your immune system.
Things became even more intriguing in January 2022. On 25 January a study was widely reported in the media, according to which there may be more than one path towards ‘robust immunity’ or ‘superimmunity’ from Covid-19: breakthrough infections following vaccination or natural infection followed by vaccination…
Superimmunity, herd immunity and natural immunity
The concepts of natural infection and ‘natural immunity’, which had been floating about since the beginning of the pandemic, made themselves felt again. Natural immunity was touted as being equal to vaccine induced immunity by those doubting vaccines and now this seemed to be vindicated (see also this confusing announcement by the CDC).
Then another word which had been sort of tabooed since the beginning of the pandemic, namely ‘herd’ immunity’ joined the crowded semantic space around super/immunity. On 18 January 2022 Wall Street Journal Abstract had the headline: “Herd immunity is over – long live superimmunity”: “Allysia Finley op-ed contends failure of coronavirus vaccines and prior infection to provide immunity mean that many people will acquire ‘superimmunity’ from Omicron variant, allowing return of normal life as virus continues to spread and mutate”. This links up with the ‘endemic discourse’ that claims the new Omicron variant is ‘mild’, which, it is claimed, would allow people to learn to live with the coronavirus, a claim that is of course rather contested. It also links up with the natural immunity discourse.
On 24 January Fox Business Tonight transmitted a debate in which somebody called Siegel talks about the Wall Street Journal article and says: “With omicron, neither is working well enough [vaccination and infection]. But together they give you a super immunity as ‘The Wall Street Journal’ put it, a super immunity”. To this somebody called Asman responds: “Well, but the vaccine mandates create these extraordinarily upside down universes where for example, now a lot of hospitals are actually bringing in people who are infected, people who are fully vaxxed, but infected rather than rehiring people who have natural immunity, who are unvaccinated.”
Natural immunity and superimmunity as concepts become enmeshed in polarised vaccination discourses, where some advocate for deliberate (natural) infection and letting the virus spread, with superimmunity being the ‘aim’, similar to the virus going ‘endemic’.
Superimmunity – a semantic field shifts shape
All this seems to indicate that a semantic field shifting and changing: from superimmunity being embedded in discourses of diet and wellness, the notion of superimmunity came to be embedded in discourses of viruses and illness, infection and vaccination, a constellation of words and discourses that is much more polarised and partisan than ever before. This polarisation in meaning needs further study and might really shed light on current value changes in society.
Although groups of words have been studied since the mid-19th century, the term ‘semantic field’ (Bedeutungsfeld) was first used in 1924 by Gunther Ipsen. For him (according to a seminal article by Suzanne Öhman) a semantic field characterises “a group of words which together form a unit of meaning as, for instance, the Indo-European vocabulary for ‘sheep’ and ‘sheep raising.’ The words do not all belong together etymologically nor are they related by association but they lie side by side like the stones of a mosaic and divide into parts a field of life”…
Semantic fields are linked to what one may call fields or forms of life. At the moment our forms of life have become pandemic forms of life. This means that the stones of our mosaics of meaning are shifting and with them our conceptions of immunity – how exactly needs much more research.
Image: Wikimedia Commons
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