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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”.

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, 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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