Monday, April 5, 2010

Distinctions: Jealousy vs. Envy

If you are a verbal person like me, it probably really annoys you when people use words incorrectly or fail to make the proper distinctions.

One really annoying case of this is when people say, "I'm so jealous!" when you tell them something really good has happened to you or whatever. They mean envious, and even then only as hyperbole. They really mean they simply desire the same thing.

While there is a long and understandable history of overlap between the use of the concepts of "jealousy" and "envy," the following distinctions should generally be observed. The words "greed" and "covetousness" might also be explained:

Greed or avarice is simply the inordinate desire for things. Though very often it will carry the connotation of wanting to accumulate or acquire more things, people already rich can be greedy about that which they already have without necessarily seeking more.

Covetousness is sometimes thought of as synonymous to greed, but in light of the 9th and 10th Commandments usually carries the connotation of desiring something that someone else has, that you don't. Whereas greed would seek material goods regardless of origin, covetousness begins to imply that for you to gain it, it will have to be taken away from someone else.

Envy usually occurs alongside covetousness, though covetousness does not always go along with envy. It is the feelings of ill-will towards someone who has something that you desire. More rarely, maybe you don't even really desire it personally, but feel inferior because they have it (power, status, money, etc) and so have bile and resentment towards them and hope that they lose it.

Jealousy, on the other hand, though some dictionaries have sadly started capitulating to the pop-culture misuse that makes it equivalent to envy, is actually very different. Jealousy is felt about something you already do possess, or at least possess in fantasy. Jealousy is a feeling of insecurity about losing that which you have (often a romantic partner) and so being paranoid or suspicious in guarding it, and hurt or angry if it is lost. A man is jealous of his attractive wife, you can jealously guard your good name or reputation, or be a jealous defender of your rights. Jealousy is felt when one suspects (or knows) that a romantic partner or friend, etc., is betraying your relationship (even if that relationship only existed in fantasy), when you fear losing something that you feel like you have an insecure grasp on.

One immediate difference you should note is that envy is always bad, is always a sin. We shouldn't have ill-will towards anyone. Whereas jealousy can be just. If we really do have a just claim to something or someone's loyalties or affections, we can rightly feel jealous if there is reason to suspect it is being undermined. God is a jealous god. But He is not an envious God.

Of course, envy and jealousy are not so mutually exclusive either, which may explain their common confusion. If you feel jealous about a lover or friend (real or imagined) because they are showing an affection to another person that you feel is (or hope to be) reserved to yourself, you are likely to also feel envious of the rival for that affection (which you covet). A small child is envious of a new baby due to the affection the parents are showing her, because he is jealous of his relationship with the parents.

"I'm so jealous," makes no sense. It is especially awkward if the good thing you are telling the person about is the start of a romantic relationship, as then "I'm so jealous" implies that the speaker is in love with one of the two of you! They mean "I'm so envious," but as I said at the beginning, even that must be hyperbole or jest. They really mean simply that they desire the same thing, they "covet" it perhaps, but let's hope they don't really feel any substantial ill-will or resentment towards you for having it, as "envy" implies.


Anonymous said...

Someone's been reading my comments on someone's facebook wall. ;)

I found your analysis helpful.


Michael D said...

I'm surprised it's taken this long for you to write this article.

Pater, O.S.B. said...

Important distinctions! Nice post.