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Covetous: The Difference Between "Jealousy" and "Envy"

The pope gets to wear nice red shoes, and a friend said, "I'm really jealous of those!" But, technically, she couldn't be jealous, unless she thought the shoes were hers, and the pope had stolen them. Instead, she "envied" the shoes, and was "envious" that he gets to wear them.

"Jealousy" and "envy" have very similar meanings and are often confused. In many ways, the difference is whether you have some claim on the object of your desire.

"Jealous" is defined as "very watchful or careful in guarding or keeping," and "resentfully envious."Envy" is defined as "a feeling of discontent and ill will because of another's advantages, possessions, etc.; resentful dislike of another who has something that one desires."

"Jealousy" has stronger emotions attached. It's no coincidence that "jealous" comes from "zealous," which means "ardent devotion." The first uses of "jealous" in English were attached to biblical devotion, then to lovers. If you have, or had, something, and are trying to protect it, you are "jealous" of it. You can be "jealous" of your reputation, your wayward lover, the red shoes you got when you became pope.

"Envy," on the other hand, is more like "want" and "desire" than "zeal." It's sometimes considered a "nice" word for "jealousy." The Biblical sin, though, is "envy," not "jealousy": When you "covet thy neighbor's wife," you are resentful that your neighbor has her, and you don't. (If she was yours first, then you can be "jealous." But that could involve violating another commandment or two.) "Envy" derives from the Latin word "invidere," which means to "look askance upon," as in "give someone the evil eye." Its previous uses include "malice" and "spite." So "envy" isn't as benign as some might have it.

Most usage guides want to keep the distinctions between the two. But using "jealousy" instead of "envy" for things that are not love interests has reached Stage Two on the five-stage Language-Change Index in Garner's Modern American Usage, more akin to violating the Sabbath than the criminal code. Do not "envy" the person who misuses "jealous" in polite company.

There's also a subtle but important distinction between "envious" and "enviable." When you feel the emotion "envy," the object of your "envy" is "enviable." So the friend is "envious" of the pope's red shoes; the pope's red shoes are "enviable."

Because those two words are so close, they also are mixed up a lot; people will use "envious" when they mean "enviable," as in "she's in an envious position." She's probably in an "enviable" position, unless there's a yoga move to express "envy."

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Merrill Perlman is adjunct assistant professor at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism and president of Merrill Perlman Consulting, offering consulting and freelance editing services and training in journalism, grammar and usage. Among her clients are The New York Times, ProPublica and the Poynter Institute. She writes the "Language Corner" column and blog for Columbia Journalism Review. Merrill retired in June 2008 after 25 years at The New York Times, most recently as director of copy desks with responsibility for managing 150 copy editors. Click here to read more articles by Merrill Perlman.