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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.

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Comments from our users:

Thursday March 21st 2013, 1:33 AM
Comment by: Victor G. (Vancouver Canada)
I love that last line regarding a yoga position! LOL
Thursday March 21st 2013, 6:58 AM
Comment by: Roberta M. (Redmond, WA)
I stand corrected! (Actually I'm sitting on an office chair, but the concept's the same). I was taught in school, 50 years ago, that one was jealous of someone else's relationship to another person or of the respect or love of the populace, but envious of material possesions. I've squeaked by all these years without correction because the two meanings come out so close in practice, but I see now that one cannot be jealous of the love of another person one has never known (or possessed) at all. Unless the jealous person actually believes there WAS a previous love.
I think I have wandered from vocabulary to psychology. Oh well. Very good essay!
Thursday March 21st 2013, 10:11 AM
Comment by: Kathy K.
I always thought of an easier way to differentiate them: Jealousy means you don't want the other person to have what they have (money, boyfriend, etc.), while envy means you wish you had it and are glad (or neutral) that the other person has it, too. Envy is benign; jealousy is not.
Thursday March 21st 2013, 10:39 AM
Comment by: Robert D. (Kennesaw, GA)
I am in agreement with Kathy K. so I hope these uses meet with approval. I am rarely jealous but envy can be a motivator.
Friday March 22nd 2013, 6:03 AM
Comment by: Manisha_Invicta (Mauritius)
i never thought of that difference between envy and jealousy.
Friday March 22nd 2013, 12:13 PM
Comment by: G-Ray (Los Angeles, CA)
Both conjure "havingness," i.e. the result of creation, the feeling that one owns/possesses. Having participated in both present time creations, and at days end, I much prefer laughter. Great article...Semper Fi
Saturday March 23rd 2013, 7:06 AM
Comment by: Boo Y. (Nottingham United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland)
I have always thought of myself as 'not a jealous person' in that if my husband takes a female friend out for dinner I am perfectly at ease about it. However I do envy material things that other people have and I don't have, which I thought was just another word for 'covet'. Now I think it is all about trusting my husband not about a jealous nature - or lack of it! Boo
Saturday March 23rd 2013, 11:15 AM
Comment by: Thomas N. (College Station, TX)
I agree with your definition of envy as being, "resentful dislike of another who has something that one desires." But you use covet as a synonym and I see coveting as moving one step beyond envy--when I covet I want what another has for myself. When I envy, I just don't like the fact that they have it and I don't. A small but important distinction.
Sunday March 24th 2013, 6:28 PM
Comment by: Mounika (VA)
I've heard some adults talking recently as if jealousy and envy weren't the same and at first I was confused, then I realized that they must have two different meanings. So when when I read this article it really cleared up the questions for me.
Monday March 25th 2013, 8:19 PM
Comment by: Ellen M.
It's interesting to hear from the comments that there are so many non-dictionary sanctioned definitions on the loose. Kathy and Robert's use of jealousy as mean-spirited is covered by begrudge, but I rarely hear people use begrudge.

When/where I grew up (Chicago area mid 20th C), while jealousy was associated with marital or romantic possessiveness (a jealous husband), jealous was also almost always used in place of envious as well (I am jealous of her handsome husband).

I used to wonder what the Old Testament God was jealous of! I had Catholic girlfriends with whom we discussed envy as a deadly sin, so envy never had any benign connotations. My early exposure to these concepts was always in a religious context, which makes sense since envy and jealousy are quintessentially moral issues.

Only later did I understand the sense of jealous of what you have and do not wish to share, vs envy of what others have and you wish you had too, or begrudged them to have at all. Part of the confusion comes from the kinds of things you can be jealous of--a spouse or lover, who are by definition, unshareable (see Roberta's distinction about relationships). But one could be jealous of a new car by refusing to let another drive it. Similarly, one might envy a friend his happy marriage without acutally coveting his wife. Can one covet something not already belonging to another? Or is that merely greed?
Friday May 17th 2013, 12:28 PM
Comment by: christiane P. (paris Afghanistan)
Thank you so much for the explanation. So I never thought the difference between these two words of.

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