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)
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.
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.
An example from Peter Temple’s novel An Iron Rose:
‘Would you say,’ I said, ‘that Leon was a jealous man?’
‘No, not jealous. Envious. Of everything he doesn’t have.’
Uncertainty in James Kelman’s story ‘Not Not While the Giro’, in his collection of the same name:
But I heroworship lighthousekeepers. No. Envy is closer. Or maybe jealousy.