What’s the difference between envy and jealousy?

Jealousy and envy are in some ways interchangeable, in other ways not. Dictionary definitions overlap but differentiate the words differently. Coverage of their respective meanings is strangely absent from most major usage guides, so this post may help clarify matters.

Having long admired Nicolas Roeg’s film Walkabout, I recently got around to reading its source: James V. Marshall’s book of the same name, first published as The Children in 1959. It explicitly observes a jealousy–envy distinction, which gives me a good excuse to explore these near-synonyms in more detail.

In Marshall’s novel, Mary and her brother, Peter, are lost in the outback when they meet an Aboriginal Australian boy* who helps them find food, water, and shelter. Mary is pained at being unable to meet Peter’s and her own survival needs, and feels excluded when her brother learns some of the other boy’s vocabulary:

Subconscious twinges of jealousy had been tormenting her. She had been hurt, deeply hurt, at his so quickly transferring his sense of reliance from her…

When the older boy sets about lighting a fire, Peter joins in the business of preparing it, eagerly gathering bits of debris for fuel, at which “[t]he bush boy clicked his teeth in approval”:

From the edge of the pool Mary watched them. Again she felt a stab of jealousy, mingled this time with envy. She tried to fight it: told herself it was wrong to feel this way. But the jealousy wouldn’t altogether die. She sensed the magnetic call of boy to boy: felt left-out, alone. If only she too had been a boy!

Jealousy, mingled with envy. What exactly does Marshall mean? Some discussion of the words’ usages and niches should help us establish this. Note, though, that the semantic lines are often blurred in practice – as the quotations below (all from COCA) will show.

Some say jealous is always negative (it has the same root as zealous), whereas envy can be positive. So for example, jealousy of someone’s status or achievements would imply resentment or ill will, while envy of such things could be more like grudging desire, or may suggest wistful regret or the possibility of emulation:

The oldest, Cain, murders the younger Abel out of pure jealousy. Cain viewed Abel as God’s favorite, the one who inhaled all the love in the room and left nothing for his brother. (Alice Camille, Dads Behaving Badly)

I envy them, you know that. I envy their youth and their dedication. That’s what we should have done at their age, Jackie, come out here and build the land. We got caught up on a treadmill, in the rat race. I’m proud of them. (Brenda Naomi Herzberg, Women in Judaism)

Sometime, however, it seems the other way around, with jealousy used positively and envy negatively:

I’ve always been as jealous of Betts as Ginger is. Not of her smarts so much as her discipline, her courage to imagine she might actually get what she wants. (Meg Waite Clayton, The Four Ms. Bradwells)

A contemporary of his once told me that every American writer Price’s age gnashed his teeth in furious envy at the reception the book received. (David Guy, Ardent Spirit, Generous Friend)

Giotto di Bondone - Envy, InvidiaA semantic division more often described is that we’re jealous of things that are ours or (we feel) should rightfully be ours, and envious of things that belong to others.

So we might jealously guard our own reputation, situation, or possessions – a jealous relationship being a possessive one – but we would envy someone else’s:

Yet I felt a feral, jealous ownership of my body. (Kseniya Melnik, Closed Fracture)

All the wives admired Bob’s dashing good looks and expressed their envy. (Janis Hubschman, Everything and the Moon)

But again this nuance is often ignored. There is a clear asymmetry here in that envy is rarely if ever used to refer to something of one’s own, but jealousy does encroach on envy’s purported territory and can refer to other people’s positions, possessions or qualities:

Her eyes were the same, those blue-green eyes everyone used to be so jealous of. (Sara Shepard, The Visibles)

You know how I know how good an artist is? When I have pangs of jealousy when I see their work. (Nicole LaPorte, Brunch at Jeffrey’s)

The distinction is quite plain in the context of sexual or social jealousy: we may be jealous of our partners or friends because we fear losing their attentions to another:

I got so jealous when the two of you became friends. (Katya Apekina, Maureen and Marjorie)

Her boyfriend likes me more than he likes her, and she’s the jealous type. (Linda Castillo, Gone Missing)

Sexual envy, by contrast, would be about coveting another person’s attributes. (Envy comes from a Latin word having to do with looking maliciously; it owes its second syllable ultimately to the same videre that gives us vision.)

Bryan Garner says careful writers use jealousy only in “contexts involving affairs of the heart”, and envy “more broadly of resentful contemplation of a more fortunate person” (A Dictionary of Modern American Usage). The Chicago Manual of Style (16th ed.) advises similarly but more inclusively:

Jealousy connotes feelings of resentment toward another, particularly in matters relating to an intimate relationship. Envy refers to covetousness of another’s advantages, possessions, or abilities.

Envy is also used in the sense of being the object of others’ envy: your first-edition Poe might make you the envy of your book-collecting friends. Or:

His recorded output would be the envy of many musicians. (David Rubien, Jazz Homecoming)

When I was eight, he hired me as an errand boy, a position which made me the envy of the town. (Joel Fishbane, A Clever Science)

Another way of putting this is enviable, which means “to be envied”: She has an enviable gift for putting people at ease. Don’t confuse it with envious, which means “feeling envy, or characterised by envy”: He looked enviously at the shop display.

Envious feels more formal to me than jealous, and it’s definitely less common: corpus figures show jealous used 4–5 times more than envious. (The data are about equal for jealousy and envy, partly because envy functions as both noun and verb.)

The informality and familiarity of jealous might be why I sometimes hear it abbreviated slangily to jeal or jeals. I’ve yet to encounter an equivalent for envious.

Google Ngram Viewer graph of jealous, jealousy, envious, envy

Returning to Walkabout’s description of Mary feeling “jealousy, mingled this time with envy”, we can conclude that she is jealous of her brother’s attentions or allegiance having moved (however superficially or temporarily) onto the older boy, and she is envious of their being boys and getting to do what boys may unselfconsciously do.

It’s a nice distinction, and if you’re a writer it’s one some readers will appreciate your making. But if your friend won front-row tickets to a show you wanted to attend, my guess is you’d be much more likely to tell them you were jealous than envious. Some might call that a semantic lapse, but I wouldn’t.


[Image: Invidia (Envy), one of the Seven Deadly Sins, by Giotto di Bondone, ca. 1305, via Wikimedia Commons]

* After researching (PDF) the terminology, I felt this was the least problematic phrase to use here.

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27 Responses to What’s the difference between envy and jealousy?

  1. schrisomalis says:

    I just ran a COCA search for ‘jealous’ and ‘envious’ looking for nouns at a 2:2 (before:after) range and got the following results:

    jealous: rage, husband, people, lover, boyfriend, man, type, wife, women, person
    envious: people, eyes, friends, looks, look, men, glances, others, person, colleagues

    From this perspective, it appears that ‘jealous’ is more strongly associated with sexual desire, at least in contemporary English, and ‘envious’ is particularly strongly associated with vision (eyes, looks, look, glances).

  2. To me they’re basically interchangeable, but I’ve certainly encountered people (on the Internet) who are passionate about maintaining the traditional distinction.

    I’ve heard it said that some of that passion is religious: to people who believe that God is jealous but envy is a sin, there’s a good reason to distinguish them. (To those who believe that God is only metaphorically jealous, less so.)

    If people who normally use “jealous” sometimes use “envious” to fend off pedants (which I might), then the formal tone of the latter could be an artifact of that.

    I don’t have much occasion to use the “jealous husband” sense, because, not surprisingly, it’s not a very significant concept in my worldview.

    “He looked enviously at the shop display” is interesting because the target of the envy is abstract and unstated: presumably he envies the class of people who can afford to buy the displayed items.

  3. Charles Sullivan says:

    When I’m jealous of you in relation to your lover, that means I want your lover for myself so that you can’t have him or her.

    When I’m envious of you in relation to your lover, that means I would also like to have a similar relationship with a lover of my own (but not your lover, necessarily).

  4. Stan says:

    Stephen: Good idea – thanks for the data. For a historical take I ran an equivalent search in COHA:
    jealous: eye, care, husband, rage, lover, mistress, anger, pang, scrutiny, disposition, rival(s), pride, watchfulness, gods, fears, temper.
    envious: eye(s), glances, rivals/ry, stares, admiration, feelings, pang, detractors, strife, gossip, veil, hatred, companions, hearts, fate, glance.
    Broadly similar, then, but with envious associated more with feelings in general, jealous with anger in particular.

    Adrian: The religious aspect is significant for both words, but I didn’t address it specifically except through the Cain/Abel quotation. No surprise though that gods showed up in COHA’s jealous collocates list.
    That’s an interesting point about the perceived formality of envious; maybe too it sounds a little more Latin than jealous does. To clarify: I made up the two (italicised & unindented) lines with enviable and envious, and deliberately designed the latter to be indirect.

    Charles: Thanks for your concise take on the difference between them. Their usage overlaps so much, though, that I can imagine people using jealous in the sense that you’ve outlined envious, and maybe also vice versa.

  5. Diane Nicholls says:

    Really interesting, Stan. Do you have any thoughts about why both jealousy and envy appear to be in fairly steep decline in terms of frequency? There’s loads of food for thought here. Thank you!

  6. Alina Cincan says:

    For me, envy and envious have always had a negative meaning, one that implies malice and anger, whilst jealousy/jealous can have both a positive connotation (‘You are enjoying the great weather in Thailand while I am in the rainy UK. I’m so jealous of you.’) and a negative one (‘She was really jealous on his success.’) In the latter example, envious could be used as well, but I think jealous is more common.

  7. Charles Sullivan says:

    Envy of another can inspire one to strive harder to achieve something similar to what the other person has achieved. In that way it can be positive, a motivator. However, I don’t see jealousy having any redeeming aspects, frankly. Jealousy wants to deprive another in order to satisfy its own selfish desires.

    I’m open to descriptivism in terms of meaning up to a point, but Humpty Dumpty can’t be right when he says that a word can mean whatever he chooses it to mean.

    I’m maintaining that there is widespread conceptual confusion about the difference in meaning between the words ‘envy’ and jealousy’. And examples of how much their usage overlaps will only show that many people are confused about the the meaning of envy and jealousy.

    When I discuss the idea of ‘harm’ in my ethics class, I explain that you can harm a human, a cat, a dog, and so forth, but you cannot harm an electric guitar or a book (things). You can damage things, but not harm them. I conclude (to myself) that those few students who do not grasp this conceptual distinction are simply confused about the meaning of the word ‘harm’ because perhaps they’ve been using it in a mistaken manner, like Humpty Dumpty.

    The same goes for the conceptual distinction between envy and jealousy, despite what Humpty Dumpty might say.

  8. bakdor says:

    Does the King James Bible shed more light on the distinction between ‘envy’ and ‘jealousy?’ The Ten Commandents instruct us to not ‘covet’ our neighbours, and the word ‘covet’ is more aligned with ‘envy’ than ‘jealousy.’ This would suggest that the word ‘envy’ has a more negative connotation than ‘jealousy.’ Elsewhere in the Bible, the all loving God is described as a jealous God. Through common usage though, I feel just the opposite, that ‘jealousy’ is more negative than ‘envy.’

    • Charles Sullivan says:

      The word ‘covet’ seems more aligned with jealousy than envy, because it suggests you want something that belong to someone else.

      • mykka says:

        wanting what someone else has is envy, not jealousy. jealousy is fear of losing what you have

  9. […] and on his own blog, Stan hunted for the origins of tantivy, and explored the difference between envy and jealousy. […]

  10. Stan says:

    Diane: The words’ decline struck me too, but I don’t know what’s behind it. I’m curious too about the graph’s bumps: all four words surged a bit around 1896–1901, for example.

    Alina: Thanks for sharing your take on the words’ respective domains. It’s interesting how we use them positively. Before I thought about it, I had the impression both were resolutely negative.

    Charles: I think many people probably are confused, or at any rate uncertain, about how the two words compare. I wasn’t too sure myself until I looked into this in some detail, and found considerable overlap in their meanings. For example, the American Heritage Dictionary (5th ed., 2011) mentions envy or envious in two of its five senses for jealous; and one of the five is neutral or positive: “Vigilant in guarding something: We are jealous of our good name.

    bakdor: The Bible may shed light on the words as they were used centuries ago, not so much as they are used today; for that, we turn to modern dictionaries and linguistic corpora. As to whether envy or jealousy is the more negative, that would take more systematic study than I’ve had time for, though many of us have subjective impressions about it.

    • bakdor says:

      Your reply is spot on, but I must admit it dates me as an old fogey who had once attended the United Church, Canada’s experiment in Protestantism. The King James was still used widely in the colonies even into the second half of the last century. I believe there are still congregations in Canada that insist on the King James to the exclusion of other Bible versions. The German spoken currently by the Hutterites and Mennonites living on the Canadian prairies goes back to the Reformation, several centuries ago. I suspect there’s an ultra-conservatism that still lingers in Canada which impacts to some degree the language. I also think it is similar in the US. The airwaves there are still flooded with TV evangelists quoting from the King James Bible. I do agree with you that a proper study of word usage ought to focus on modern dictionaries and texts, but some accommodation should also be made for the impact of popular media such as TV and the residual effects of the texts of ancient religions.

      And thank you for your postings. I find them informative and a joy to read.

      • Stan says:

        bakdor: Yes, I agree. When I said “not so much” in reference to the Bible’s influence on contemporary usage, I certainly didn’t mean “not at all”. (A few years ago I had a brief exchange with a Canadian reader about its linguistic legacy, albeit in the context of the idioms it propagated.) And speech communities for whom old texts are more culturally relevant will probably tend to retain or echo more of its language.

        Regarding the impact of TV/film on usage: this is something I’ve noticed; certain expressions and phrases seem to have become popular in Ireland as a result of shows such as Buffy and Friends. (The first of these at least was linguistically innovative.) And there are language corpora based on “television English”.

        Thanks for your thoughtful contributions, and for the kind words about the blog.

  11. Charles Sullivan says:

    From a philosophy perspective: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/envy/#1.2

    • Charles Sullivan says:

      I was hoping you might have something to say about this, Stan. When the explanation begins with “Ordinary language tends to conflate envy and jealousy. The philosophical consensus is that these are distinct emotions.”

      They appear to be separate emotional phenomena, regardless of what we call them (we can call one ‘Humpty’ and the other ‘Dumpty’ if we prefer).

      I’m not convinced that the semantic conflation of Envy and Jealousy has any bearing on these two distinct emotional phenomena. They are real, and they will continue to exist no matter what names we give them.

      Recall that your title-question was “What’s the difference between envy and jealousy?” not “What’s the difference between how we use the words ‘envy’ and ‘jealousy’?”

      As a philosopher I tend to picky about these sorts of things. I hope you can understand my philosophical angle on this matter.

      • Stan says:

        Charles: It’s a characteristically helpful article, thank you. This line in particular is a nice delineation of the philosophical position that regardless of what people say, the underlying experiences can be distinguished from one another:

        While it is linguistically acceptable to say that one is jealous upon hearing about another’s vacation, say, it has been plausibly argued that one is feeling envy, if either, in such a case.

        It also says “these two distinct syndromes need to be distinguished” – but that depends on one’s requirements. It might be clearer to say that they can be distinguished. As for my title question: perhaps I should have put the two words in quotation marks.

  12. mykka says:

    Jealousy is fear of losing what you have, usually a person, to someone else. Envy is wanting what someone else has. Both can be good, and both can be awful.
    Jealousy can be good in small doses, it shows you care about that person or relationship enough that you don’t want to lose them. They are not indifferent to you. Also you may be right in feeling jealous if you see your partner flirting with someone else.
    Envy can be good if you simply admire what someone else has, and strive to have the same things, it can be a motivation.
    However both can get really ugly. Jealousy in extreme can become abusive, violent, agressive. You’re so dependent on that someone that you do all these terrible things to keep them with you, almost like your prisioner. Envy can be atrocious when you covet something someone else has so badly, that you are willing to steal that away from them. You feel hatred and resentment towards that person so much that you are happy when they fail in life. And if you can’t take away what that person has that you want so badly, you will destroy that possession, because if you dont deserve it, then they dont deserve it either.

    • Stan says:

      Thanks for the vivid descriptions, mykka. They cover some of the meanings of jealousy and envy, but not all of them, as my examples have shown: jealousy, for instance, does not necessaily have anything to do with another person. The words’ semantic terrains also overlap in some ways.

  13. wisewebwoman says:

    My first thoughts were:
    Blind with jealousy.
    Green with envy.
    I think jealousy can be more damaging to both parties.
    Envy is a more benevolent word. More motivating as was pointed out in another comment.

    • Stan says:

      WWW: Jealousy‘s connotations of damage presumably owe to its strong association with heartfelt relationships; whereas envy, as you say, can provoke the drive to emulate.

  14. Funny, this seems easy in my head:

    Jealousy is about something you have, or believe you have.
    Envy is about something you don’t you wish you did.

    • Stan says:

      Robert: Yes, I describe that in the post as the semantic division more often described [than others], and it serves as a useful summary in many circumstances. But it’s far from universally observed.

  15. cyndy says:

    when one is jealous it does not really mean he or she is envy, because when one envy s you,he or she really wished they were you

  16. jpgharden says:

    Reblogged this on jpgharden and commented:
    SPIRITUAL WISDOM… please find yours,

  17. […] a fine line between jealousy and envy. I had thought of them as pretty much the same thing until reading Stan Carey’s blog post on the subject. I think that admiration is also quite close; it is the nicer, more well-behaved cousin of envy. I […]

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