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Ooh, what an exciting pair to be discussing — the two emotions that jointly account for about 65% of all Gossip Girl storylines! But wait! Are they two emotions? Or are they two words for the same emotion? Some people think there’s a crucial difference between the two, such as Paul Brians (author of Common Errors in English Usage) and this commenter who put it nicely:

I get frustrated by the common use of the word jealousy instead of envy. “I was jealous of her house/car/clothes etc” should be “I was envious of her house/car/coat” as they belong to someone else. We are envious of something we don’t have and jealous of something we want to hold onto – yet most people seem to use the word jealous for both!”

The definitions given in the above comment are completely reasonable, but like “most people” and unlike these people, I don’t believe in the exclusivity of the definitions. Let’s start out by checking the definitions that commenter gives against actual usage:

(1a) “If you are in a relationship where your husband’s jealousy or possessiveness is beginning to get to you [...]“
(1b) “My husband is envious and I’m sure we will be ordering a case for his i-pod in the near future.”

In (1a), the jealous husband wants to not lose his wife. In (1b), the envious husband wants to gain his wife’s iPod case. In the first sentence, the jealousy is over something that is (metaphorically) his; in the second, the envy is over something that isn’t. So those definitions bear out, and they’re listed in any dictionary as well.

Furthermore, there is some exclusivity between the two words; envious can’t take on the meaning of jealous in (1a):

(2) The woman could no longer stand her envious husband.

(2) is, of course, a grammatical sentence, but it means that the husband’s inability to handle the fact that other people have nicer things than he does is contributing to the dissolution of their marriage. For me, it can’t mean that the husband is possessive of his wife, like jealousy did in (1a). (My intuition is backed up by the OED, in which all of the definitions of envy involve other people and their things.) So that fills in 3 of the 4 possibilities:

wanting own stuff others’ stuff
jealous YES (1a) ?
envious NO (2) YES (1b)

And if the complainant whose quote started this post is correct, then the question mark in that top-right square should be replaced by a bright red NO. In some sense, that would be nice, right? The table would be symmetric, and the exclusivity would be mutual. But language cares not for symmetry, nor for mutual exclusivity. Jealous can be used in reference to other people’s possessions, and it has been this way since before the letter j even existed. The OED’s first attestation with this meaning is from Chaucer, around 1385. Here’s a nice, clear example from William Caxton, the first English printer, circa 1477:

(3) Alle were ialous of him. But Iason neuer thought on none of them.

The OED has attestations of this meaning through to the present, and we know that this meaning still exists, or there wouldn’t be any reason to complain about it. So let’s finish off the chart:

wanting own stuff others’ stuff
jealous YES (1a) YES (3)
envious NO (2) YES (1b)

Yes, there’s a difference between jealousy and envy. But it’s not that you can’t be jealous of your friend’s stuff. It’s just that you can’t be enviously guarding your friendship.

By the way, there’s another proposed distinction that I found while researching this one, a philosophical distinction that is certainly worthy of mention. But that distinction merits a post of its own, one that involves philosophers, emotions, and Gossip Girl spoilers. This post simply wouldn’t have been able to keep it all in. I’ll try to get that post up soon.

[Update 06/07: By "soon", I apparently meant a month and a half later. But the follow-up post is now available. Thanks for your patience.]

Summary: Envy is pretty well restricted to the feeling you get from wanting someone else’s stuff. Jealousy is a bit more inclusive, allowing you to either want to have someone else’s stuff or want to keep your own stuff.

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A lot of people make claims about what "good English" is. Much of what they say is flim-flam, and this blog aims to set the record straight. Its goal is to explain the motivations behind the real grammar of English and to debunk ill-founded claims about what is grammatical and what isn't. Somehow, this was enough to garner a favorable mention in the Wall Street Journal.

About Me

I'm Gabe Doyle, a graduate student/doctoral candidate in Linguistics at UC San Diego. I have a Bachelor's in math from Princeton and a Master's in linguistics from UCSD.

In my research, I look at how humans manage one of their greatest learning achievements: the acquisition of language. I build computational models of how people can learn language with cognitively-general processes and as few presuppositions as possible.

I focus on learning problems that have traditionally been viewed as difficult, such as combining multiple information sources or learning without negative data or ungrammatical examples. My dissertation models how children can use multiple cues to segment words from child-directed speech, and how phonological constraints can be inferred based on what children do and don't hear adults say.



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