Words that convey similar meanings sometimes come to be used interchangeably. In the case of envy/envious and jealousy/jealous, though, the move seems to have been in one direction only; jealousy is often used in place of envy (“I’m so jealous of your new job”) but not vice-versa (one does not write, for example, “He was poisoned by his envious wife.”). Theodore Bernstein further points out that jealousy is sometimes used, not merely in place of envy, but as a stronger form: “‘There, within a stone’s throw of the sea, he makes his home, and his description of how he does this makes one move from envy to downright jealousy.’”1 A human, and perhaps all-too-familiar, state of affairs—anyone who denies having experienced such a progression of emotion is either hopelessly out of touch with his or her feelings or a liar.
However, although jealous has been used in place of envious since the late 1300s2 and using jealous as a more intense form of envious creates no confusion, it is often held that the words have distinct meanings and that this distinction should be maintained. Even authorities sometimes flounder around a bit when trying to nail the distinction,3 but in general envy is taken to convey a coveting of the wealth, possessions, or success of someone else,4 whereas jealousy is often taken to convey a state of “intolerance of a rival for the possession of a thing which one regards as peculiarly one’s own or for the winning of which one has set one’s heart….”4 Jealousy also can be used in a less grasping sense to indicate the understandable guarding of some possession or attribute, as in “new colonies were jealous of their new independence.”5 Both of the latter meanings highlight that jealousy concerns an attitude toward something that one has or believes one has. In this sense, envious and jealous are not interchangeable—one can jealously guard something, but one cannot enviously guard something.
However, jealous also often carries a frank note of hostility, “a strong implication of distrust, suspicion, enviousness, or sometimes anger.4 This might suggest why the person seeking a word with a bit more heft than envious will sometimes use jealous instead—quite simply, when casting about for a suitably malicious word in the heat of the moment, jealous is low-hanging fruit.
On the other hand, envy is not the innocuous little milquetoast that it at first seems. True, it can be used without malice; one can say, for example, “I don’t envy him his mother in law.” Equally true, it has in the past been used in a noble sense—Aristotle wrote of “good envy,” an admiration that drives one to emulate another3—although that usage has been rare since the 1600s and is now nearly obsolete.6 Certainly, envy carries less emotional charge than jealousy. But to assume that envy is simply a meek cousin of jealousy is to make a mistake.
If jealousy implies strong emotion that often is perhaps all too apparent to everyone involved, envy can imply something more clandestine; as Joseph Epstein puts it, “Malice that cannot speak its name, cold-blooded but secret hostility, impotent desire, hidden rancor, and spite all cluster at the center of envy.”3 Used in this sense, envy suddenly becomes a different animal altogether, and, as Epstein further points out, “The openness changes the nature of the game. Envy is almost never out in the open; it is secretive, plotting, behind the scenes.”3 Perhaps this is another reason that jealousy is often used, albeit subconsciously, in place of envy—after all, envy is one of the Seven Deadly Sins; jealousy is not.
In short, although envy and jealousy have long been used interchangeably and jealousy has come to be frequently used in place of envy, the words do denote different states, and the careful writer should take care to maintain the distinction between them. Both can be used in neutral ways (“She was jealous of her honor”; “I don’t envy him his workload”), but both also can carry weightier meanings; in choosing between them, one might keep in mind that “The real distinction is that one is jealous of what one has, envious of what other people have.”3
The bottom line:
● Looking for a word that expresses the coveting of what someone else has? Use envy.
● Looking for a word that expresses the guarding of what one has or believes one has? Use jealousy.
● Keep in mind that although jealousy is often used as a more intense form of envy, it might be better to use another word or to reword the sentence so as to retain envy.—Phil Sefton, ELS
1. Envy, jealousy. In: Bernstein TM. The Careful Writer: A Modern Guide to English Usage. New York, NY: Athaneum; 1985:166-167.
2. Jealous. The Compact Oxford English Dictionary. 2nd ed. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press; 1991:892.
3. Epstein J. The green-eyed monster: envy is nothing to be jealous of. Washington Monthly website. http://www.washingtonmonthly.com/features/2003/0307.epstein.html. July/August 2003. Accessed December 13, 2011.
4. Envious, jealous. Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of Synonyms. Springfield, MA; Merriam-Webster Inc; 1984:295.
5. Jealous. Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary. 11th ed. Springfield, MA: Merriam-Webster Inc; 2003:671.
6. Envy. The Compact Oxford English Dictionary. 2nd ed. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press; 1991:523.