Poor Peterson, beset on all sides

I’ve said before that Jordan Peterson is a bad biologist, not any kind of biologist at all, and especially not an evolutionary biologist. When someone knowledgeable in the field looks at his expertise, he’s not even a good clinical psychologist. What, exactly, is he supposed to be good at? We can definitely say it sure isn’t ancient languages and the Bible.

…I discuss in detail how Peterson routinely tries to use ancient myths and the Bible to support his various noxious viewpoints, despite the fact that he has absolutely no understanding of the academic study of these subjects and his interpretations of them display a profound ignorance of the historical and cultural contexts from which they originate and how ancient audiences understood them.

Peterson frequently makes etymological arguments, which I’ve always found silly and are typically used creatively by know-nothings to make rhetorical points. Fake etymologies are common on the internet. The annoying thing about Peterson is that he uses them to sound “scholarly,” but he’s using them in bizarre ways.

By the way, sin. There’s two derivations of the word sin: one is chet, which is from the Hebrew, and the other is hamartia, from the Greek. And they both are archery terms that mean to miss the target.

And then he goes on to babble about sports arenas and crowds and I don’t know what, all while gesturing madly. It’s weird display. Very cringe.

But he’s getting everything wrong! Not that that would slow him down in the slightest.

In these few short sentences, Peterson has already made three serious errors. First, he mispronounces the Hebrew word חֵטְא (ḥeṭʾ)—a noun derived from the verbal root ח־ט־א (ḥ-ṭ-ʾ)—as /t͡ʃɛt/ (pronouncing the ⟨ḥ⟩ at the beginning like the ⟨ch⟩ in cheese) when it should actually be pronounced /χɛt/. This is a pronunciation mistake that no one who actually knows anything about Hebrew would make, since the sound /t͡ʃ/ does not exist in ancient or modern Hebrew. By mispronouncing the word in this blatant manner, Peterson clearly demonstrates that he does not even know the Hebrew alphabet.

Second, Peterson claims that these words are “derivations of the word sin,” but this is factually incorrect. Neither of these words is the etymological root of the English word sin; instead, they are ancient Hebrew and Greek words that occur in the texts of the Bible that modern translators normally render into English as the word sin because translators have decided (whether rightly or wrongly) that sin is the closest English equivalent of these terms.

Etymologically speaking, the English word sin actually derives from the Middle English word sinne, which derives from the Old English word synn, which derives from the Proto-West Germanic word *sunnju, meaning “responsibility,” “care,” “worry,” or “need.” This word, in turn, derives from the Proto-Germanic word *sunjō, meaning “truth.” This, in turn, comes from the Proto-Indo-European root *h₁sónts, meaning “a thing which exists or is true,” which is the active participle of the Proto-Indo-European verb *h₁es-, meaning “to be.”

Third and finally, Peterson claims that both the Hebrew word ḥeṭʾ and the Greek word ἁμαρτία are “archery terms,” but this is only partly true. It is true that ancient texts do use both of these words to refer to when a person shoots an arrow or throws a spear and misses their intended target. Nonetheless, ancient texts also use both of these words in a much more general sense to refer to any kind of mistake or failure that a person makes. In fact, some of the earliest attested occurrences of the word ἁμαρτάνω use it in this more general sense to mean simply “make a mistake.”

I’ll take the author’s word for it all, but using a tenuous link between sin and archery is already ridiculous. It’s an unwarranted extrapolation and interpretation, even if the etymology were correct. It’s like if I were talking about developmental biology, using technical terms we take for granted, like “competence” and “induction” and “determination,” and used a dictionary to declare that we thought embryos were self-willed intelligent beings. No, it’s more that embryologists in the 1920s were enamored with psychology and were borrowing terms to apply to concepts that had absolutely nothing to do with minds.

Peterson is that clueless nerd with a dictionary making stuff up to justify his conclusions.


  1. seversky says

    What would be the ancient Greek word for a demagogue who pretends to knowledge he doesn’t have in order to bamboozle an audience most of whom don’t know any better?

  2. says

    Sounds like he’d fit right in as an evangelical preacher. Just like so many other clowns who fail at real-world tasks as blatantly as JP does…

  3. says

    seversky: Doesn’t “demagogue” come from an ancient Greek word or phrase? You may have answered your own question.

  4. lotharloo says

    What, exactly, is he supposed to be good at?

    Telling young frustrated socially-conservative men what they want to hear. And talking fast. Those two are his only talents.

  5. rietpluim says

    And again I wonder how another ignorant, incompetent, uninteresting, over-esteemed, cliche, complacent nincompoop gains so much popularity. Peterson and his ilk should never have emerged from the swamps of dullness, yet here we are. What on earth is wrong with people?

  6. raven says

    Poor Peterson, beset on all sides

    I’m going to assume that this is a rehetorical device using sarcasm.

    While he is beset on all sides, it is all of his own doing and well justified.
    Peterson has always been a conperson.
    In the last few years, people have looked closely enough at him and his work to figure that out.

    He makes his money like any other right wingnut grifter.
    As a garden variety hate merchant, reflecting people’s hate back to them for money.
    Peterson’s hates include women, gays, Trans, progressives, atheists, nonxians, Social Justice Warriors, and educated people.
    It’s just about everyone who is now alive on earth.

  7. wzrd1 says

    I saw that routinely with evangelical preachers, who fixate upon a single word in ancient Greek or Hebrew, ignore the rest of the sentence, redefining language in the most tangled reasoning possible. They put Orwell’s doublethink to shame
    The current fad in the evangelical community, it rears its head up occasionally, typically generationally.
    Of course, to keep that company, they also resort to revisionism, to the point I’ve honestly expected them to say that Jesus personally defeated the Roman Empire in his FA-18. Which, of course, is utter nonsense.
    Everyone knows that Jesus flew a B-52 full of rubber dogshit out of Hong Kong. It’s in Stupidians 3:12.

  8. raven says

    Peterson made his ascent to fame by being a misogynist and pandering to young, right wingnut males.
    Below is a few of his comments on women, a group he clearly hates and has contempt for.
    His comments are in bold, followed by my replies.

    ..women have a subconscious wish for brutal male domination
    This is bullcrap. He doesn’t know this.
    ..that it’s unfortunate that men can’t control women who say crazy things because they aren’t allowed to hit them
    How about crazy men like Peterson. We aren’t allowed to hit them either.
    Peterson admires violence and is frustrated that he can’t be violent towards women.
    Guy is a sick puppy.
    ..young women are outraged because they don’t have a baby to suckle
    Gibberish. He doesn’t know this. It’s just a misogynistic insult.

    ..if a woman doesn’t want to have kids, there’s something wrong with her
    Gibberish. It’s an opinion or an assertion without proof. It’s also wrong.
    It’s a sick puppy thing again.
    ..and says “The idea that women were oppressed throughout history is an appalling theory.”
    – despite women lacking basic human rights and legally being owned by men throughout history
    The oppresion was/is blatantly true and obvious.
    ..says stuff like “Men cannot oppose pathological women because chivalry demands they keep their most potent weapons sheathed” on twitter
    That violence thing again. I would be very surprised if Peterson doesn’t have a history of violence against women, children, and pets. Anything smaller and weaker than himself.

    Peterson also hates atheists and blames the Nazis, Communism, and Stalin on…atheism. Which is just wrong again.

  9. René says

    I don’t give a flying fuck about Jordan Peterson. He’s a complete idiot. (He graduated cum laude in Idiocy, as far as I’m concerned.)

    What annoyed me more is that in the article that PZ linked to (“jordan-peterson-does-not-understand-ancient-languages”) it becomes apparent that Unicode support has not improved much since I left the business. (PAH!) Greek letters that change size and even shape when they get a diacritic?!? DRAMATIC

  10. cartomancer says

    seversky, #1 and raging bee, #3

    While “demagogue” (δημαγωγός) is a useful term here, it basically just means anyone who sways a crowd to their will (it means “people leader” or “mob leader”).

    Someone who pretends to wisdom and cleverness, but really just uses fallacious arguments to appear wise or clever would be a “sophist” (σοφιστής), which originally just meant “pursuer of wisdom”, but in a 5th Century Athenian context became associated with a particular breed of itinerant rhetoric teachers who specialised in playing word games to appear plausible, primarily for the purpose of winning arguments in court or the public assembly.

  11. cartomancer says

    Also, yawn, the whole spurious etymologies equalling deep truths about a subject schtick was done to death over a thousand years ago. Isidore of Seville in the 7th Century was obsessed with the game, and it hasn’t got any better since.

    Peterson isn’t even a stupid person’s idea of what a smart person looks like. He’s the idea of what a smart person looks like that a stupid person’s idea of a stupid person would have.

  12. René says

    Having said that, I enjoyed Spencer MacDaniel’s musings on the etymology of sin. So, it could be that Dutch zonde is a cognate of (Du.) zijnde. Lots of interesting things to ponder upon, and digging in Etymological dictionaries. I have a few.

  13. Nemo says

    As he seems to draw in lots of suckers, I suggest his true skill is simply as a con artist.

  14. birgerjohansson says

    Raging Bee @ 12

    Yes, here is the greek term “sophist ” which Socrates re-defined as pseudo-philosopher telling his rich clients what they want to hear.

  15. birgerjohansson says

    wzrd1 @ 8
    You are too late.
    Family Guy had Moses and Jesus take out the Roman legions with their AKs.

    BTW with the likes of Peterson I get a kind of nostalgia for 1970s honest kooks like Velikovsky.

  16. StevoR says

    Surprised JP is trying to tie the notion of “sin” to archery since I don’t imagine lobsters* were very good at that somehow…

    Or what the whole point he thinks he’s trying to make by that supposed link even if it was real is..?

    .* It was kinda JP’s shtick at least for awhile & makes as much sense as a human eating an all meat diet….

    Peterson’s logic follows that natural hierarchies within lobster communities can serve as a pre-cultural prototype for some aspects of human behaviour. Male lobsters use aggression to ensure access to scarce resources. More aggressive lobsters have more serotonin, and thus the lobsters that lose fights are framed as ‘depressed’. The logic follows that if, as a human male, you’re feeling down in the dumps, then the ‘natural’ solution is to assert social dominance. “Stand up straight with your shoulders back” is an oft-quoted platitude related to an assertion of power and masculinity. Essentially, it’s all on you, bucko.

    Source : https://www.varsity.co.uk/science/23090

  17. Oggie: Mathom says

    chigau (違う):

    Is he using the list of Abominations unto Nuggan?

    Well, the right-wing evangelical christianist white christian nationalists find new things, every day, which are destroying America and should be fought in the courts, in legislation, and with assault weapons. They are adding to the list faster than the last days of Nuggan.

    I wonder when the colour blue will be declared anathema by the RWECWCN crowd?



    Blue states . . .


  18. rietpluim says

    That darn original sin. Ever since Adam and Eve ate from the apple, humans haven’t shot an arrow straight.

  19. says

    Hilariously wrong etymologies and definitions are common, and yes, especially in church.

    I’ve now read several people who knew JP professionally describe him as a preacher, not a teacher or even a mental health professional.

    The thing is, he has no religious training, and belongs to no formal creed or congregation. He’s the kind of person around whom cults grow, the kind who radicalizes followers, and he seems to be perfectly willing to make that happen. While this etymology stuff is funny, JP has the potential to become the source of great tragedies.

    No, I have no idea what to do about it.

  20. raven says

    While this etymology stuff is funny, JP has the potential to become the source of great tragedies.

    Like countless cult mediated tragedies.

    Kenya cult death toll rises to 200; more than 600 reported …

    4 days ago — The death toll linked to a doomsday cult in Kenya hit 201 Saturday after police exhumed 22 more bodies, most of them bearing signs of …
    CBS News https://www.cbsnews.com › World

    This is the most recent cult disaster, which I’m sure most have read about.
    201 dead and 600 still missing, many of them children.
    (How can 800 people go missing and no one cares enough to look for them?)

    Heavens Gate and the current record holder, Reverend Jim Jones People’s Temple in Guyana.

    No, I have no idea what to do about it.

    On the bright side, Peterson isn’t very good at anything including being a wannabe cult leader.
    He has zero credibility in all but the most dysfunctional groups by now.

    Shine a light on him and laugh and he becomes a clown, a parody of a Fake professor turned failed cult leader.

  21. monad says

    I feel like “sophist” is too kind for Peterson? Like sure, they absolutely have a reputation for disingenuity…but ultimately they were professional arguers. They did things like train people to represent themselves in court. And what we are hearing here is not some lawyer-like spinning of the facts to their own end, it’s just prattling.

  22. says

    Based on all the valid criticism here, maybe we should circulate a copy of that blank petition I got years ago. We could put Peterson’s name on it and all sign it. It was a ‘Petition to Order the Destruction of a Worthless Person’. Oh, wait, that might mean we would run out of petitions for all the rtwingnuts and xtian terrorists who qualify as ‘worthless people’. /S?

  23. says

    @22 feralboy12: within the next two years, Peterson will be quoting the ancient Greek philosopher Popsicles.
    I reply wasn’t that philosopher mentioned in the old testicle book that includes tRUMPS friends ‘the 2 corinthians’?

  24. seversky says

    Raging Bee @ 12 & Rob Grigjanis @ 23

    So, sophistagogic wanker? Works for me.

  25. wzrd1 says

    Demagogue, sophist, I prefer a different term to describe him.
    Wheel chock for a steamroller on an incline, set in neutral.
    Or maybe as a professional moderator – inside of a nuclear reactor.
    Best option, singularity taste tester.

  26. robro says

    JP is another person that I could happily ignore and forget. I could probably rattle off another 100 or so in that category, many of them preachers, politicians, pundits, or media personalities. Alas, it is not to be.

  27. birgerjohansson says

    “Sin” and “archery”…
    There was a 1960s film with wossname Niven about a cult in a French village. It involved human sacrifice by arrow.
    But Peterson is not the kind of person to watch oddball films, so it is unlikely to have inspired him.

    Anyway, he is getting boring. He needs to hang out with David Icke, cultivate some originality.

  28. Jim Balter says

    it becomes apparent that Unicode support has not improved much since I left the business

    Whatever support you’re getting is from your browser, dimmie. Unicode support has in fact greatly improved, regardless of how poor it is in your backwater.

  29. chrislawson says

    Etymology is fascinating and it can be helpful in (1) explaining a concept in its historical context, and (2) helping to avoid words with regrettable origins (e.g. racial slurs that aren’t always obvious). But anyone who is a strict etymological literalist must reject the existence of subatomic physics.

  30. jenorafeuer says

    @Jim Balter:
    That may not even be a browser issue as such… more likely just a badly-designed font. Or possibly a primary font that doesn’t have the characters with the diacritics and a fallback font that does, but which is in a different style.

  31. unclefrogy says

    yes he is full of it (are his eyes brown?)
    he likes to talk too much and i think his appeal is primarily emotional. It his ability to project his ideas as definitely true that is the base of his appeal. In these times nothing is assured, many of our historical perceptions of reality have been proven to be in error. Here he comes spouting his shallow BS in an assuring manner sounding like he knows things for sure, It is the absoluteness sounding of his argument and the simplicity of his rhetoric that appeals never mind that it does not make sense nor match up with any reality ever encountered his audience can repeat what part the can remember and take it as true for it to be enough for them. Not so much for anyone who can still think and is not afraid to confront reality.

  32. dangerousbeans says

    Surely from a Jungian perspective you don’t need to understand the history, any manifestation of the archetype is a reflection of the Plutonian ideal. So we don’t need to study the history, we can just use our current manifestation to work towards the true version.
    It’s all bullshit of course.

    The most interesting thing about Peterson is I get the feeling he’s bullshitting himself too, unlike a lot of these grifters. You can occasionally spot where he’s seen through his self-deception and has to rebuild it

  33. says

    Nemo @15
    “As he seems to draw in lots of suckers, I suggest his true skill is simply as a con artist.”

    Though it would be by accident. He strikes me as someone who has bought into his own BS and thanks to all of the plaudits he gets from garbage people truly believes he is a genius philosopher.

  34. says

    By the way, sin. There’s two derivations of the word sin… And they both are archery terms that mean to miss the target.

    All this diversionary hand-waving about word origins is especially meaningless WRT “sin,” because no matter where the word came from, Christian bigots and con-artists never settle on one particular meaning of the word anyway — they simply use it to mean whatever they want it to mean at any given moment, subject to change without notice, sometimes changing from one meaning to another in the same sentence, sometimes using it to mean two very different things, interchangeably, at the same time. It’s a word meant to obscure and deceive, not to describe or clarify. It’s all about the gaslighting, and it needs to be kicked to the curb, along with any sophistagogue who makes regular “use” of it.

  35. birgerjohansson says

    If he did not obviously have mental health issues I would go all in in schadenfreude.

  36. F.O. says

    It doesn’t matter how wrong he is.
    It is a mistake to assume that his fans are after some sort of understanding the world.
    Their reasoning doesn’t work like yours, mine or that of most of the people in your circle.

    They are after rationalizations to feel superior to “the other”.
    The long, convoluted act makes them feel smart.

    This is what Peterson sells and this is why calling out his shallow ignorance won’t affect his audience.