Which Word Wednesday: Envious vs. Jealous

By October 6, 2010 culture, faith, language No Comments

We’ve all experienced the sick-to-the-stomach feeling of envy. It’s no fun whatsoever. And it makes us green, which is not a desirable pallor for anyone—except Kermit, but he’s green all the time, not due to any emotional wellspring. (Mary Kassian describes the origin of the phrase green with envy if you are curious.)

When this intrusive emotion rages within, we might describe it as envy or jealousy, and everyone would understand the intent.

But did you know that being envious is not quite the same as being jealous? Let’s take a look at these two words for this week’s Which Word match-up.

Consider the definitions of these two adjectives from the Oxford American Dictionary:

envious :: adjective
feeling or showing envy

envy :: noun
a feeling of discontented or resentful longing aroused by someone else’s possessions, qualities, or luck

jealous :: adjective
fiercely protective or vigilant of one’s rights or possessions; an intense effort to hold on to what one possesses

What we find is that one word describes feelings about a lack (envious) and the other describes feelings about an abundance you want to guard (jealous).

Envy is about keeping up with the Joneses—you see what others have and want it for yourself.

Jealousy is about guarding your territory to keep those pesky Joneses off your turf—others see what you have and want to take it from you. (This sounds a bit more like paranoia than need be, but you get the idea!)

Here’s how envy and jealousy shake out with a real-life example:

An envious heart says: The Joneses own the Oxford American Dictionary; I want what they have and I resent that they have it when I don’t.

A jealous heart says: The Joneses want to take my Oxford American Dictionary, but I will not let them have it.

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What’s my WWW verdict? The Joneses are blessed to own the Oxford American Dictionary . . . but I would only be envious if they owned the Oxford English Dictionary in all its 20-volume, 21,730-page glory.

What do you think? Should we make a distinction when the heart is experiencing envious emotion versus jealous emotion? Cast your anonymous, free-of-charge vote in the poll.

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Check out previous Which Word Wednesday verdicts here.

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