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[Yikes! It’s been more than a month since I last posted; I’m sorry for the silence. I’m working on officially becoming a master of arts, and also coming up with a dissertation proposal, and those don’t leave a lot of time for outside interests. I’ve finally gotten around to adding links to Stan Carey’s, Jan Freeman’s, and Arnold Zwicky’s blogs to the sidebar, though, so that’s something.]

Let’s return to the topic of jealousy and envy from the previous post. There, I argued that one can be jealous either of another’s things, or of one’s own*, but one can only be envious of another’s things. Now, that leaves open an important question: if you’re talking about the feelings you have toward someone else’s stuff, when are you envious and when are you jealous? Are the two in free variation, or is there some subtle distinction between the two?

If you’re a philosopher there apparently is one, and it’s one that I have to admit a certain fondness for. From the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

Jealousy involves three parties, the subject, the rival, and the beloved; and the jealous person’s real locus of concern is the beloved—the person whose affection he is losing or fears losing—not his rival. Whereas envy is a two party relation, with a third relatum that is a good (albeit a good that could be a particular person’s affections); and the envious person’s locus of concern is the rival. Hence, even if the good that the rival has is the affection of another person, there is a difference between envy and jealousy.”

Or to take it out of philosophical terms, jealousy indicates more concern for the coveted object, while envy indicates more concern for the object’s possessor. It took me a few times going through that definition to get it, so let me put it in terms that I find more approachable, namely a recent story arc in Gossip Girl.

Byronic hero Chuck Bass owns a hotel and has a girlfriend, Blair Waldorf. His uncle, Jack Bass (pictured below), possessor of exactly the sort of goatee that I think would look marvelous on me if only I could convince my facial hair to cooperate and my girlfriend to continue associating with me, comes to town. In an elaborate gambit involving a woman who may or may not be Chuck’s biological mother, Jack swipes the hotel from Chuck. Jack is willing to return control of the hotel to Chuck, but demands a night with Chuck’s girlfriend Blair in return. In exactly the sort of convoluted scheme that I love the show for, Chuck tricks Blair into convincing herself to agree to Jack’s request.

Try and tell me you don't want Jack Bass's facial hair.

Now here’s where the jealousy/envy distinction comes in. When Blair shows up at Jack’s room, he informs her that he isn’t interested in her in any romantic way. The whole request was merely a ploy to show that Chuck would treat Blair no differently than any of his other possessions. Jack sends Blair away, content in the knowledge that he has undermined Chuck’s first meaningful relationship. It wasn’t that Jack wanted Blair; rather, he wanted Chuck to not have her. Thus, if someone in the audience were a philosopher who adhered to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy‘s definitions, they might turn to their viewing compatriots and say:

“Aha! So Jack was merely envious of Chuck’s relationship with Blair, not jealous of it.”

Any distinction that explains the underlying motivations of characters on Gossip Girl is obviously going to be something I’m fond of, so I’m inclined to grant the SEP its distinction. However, the SEP also notes that:

“Ordinary language tends to conflate envy and jealousy.”

And since most of the people one encounters in a day are not philosophers, the distinction between jealousy and envy is not one that one should expect to see enforced. Nor is it a rule that one ought to enforce; the distinction exists not in the lexicon of English but in the lexicon of philosophy, so I wouldn’t try to read into people’s choice between jealousy and envy too much. That said, I do feel a weak twinge of regret that English does not make this distinction, much like how I feel about inclusive versus exclusive we**.

Summary: In philosophical jargon there is a distinction between jealousy (in which one wants a coveted object or relationship) and envy (in which one is concerned primarily with the possessor of a coveted object). Although this could very well be a useful distinction in everyday English, it isn’t, and it won’t be any time soon.

*: As might be a fellow who jealously hoards his Burger King collectibles.

**: If parents say to a child, “we’re going to go to the toy store tonight and then we’re going to drink some wine,” presumably the first we includes the child while the second excludes the child. Sometimes I want to be able to make this difference explicit without resorting to a paraphrase like “just the two of us” or “we, not you”.

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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, currently a postdoctoral scholar in the Language and Cognition Lab at Stanford University. Before that, I got a doctorate in linguistics from UC San Diego and a bachelor's in math from Princeton.

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. Currently, I'm working on models for acquiring phonology and other constraint-based aspects of cognition.

I also examine how we can use large electronic resources, such as Twitter, to learn about how we speak to each other. Some of my recent work uses Twitter to map dialect regions in the United States.

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