It’s green, but which one is it?

“Green with envy.”

“O, beware, my lord, of jealousy; it is the green-eyed monster, which doth mock the meat it feeds on.” (Yo, that’s from Shakespeare. Othello, Act III, scene 3.)

There’s envy, and there’s jealousy, and while common usage has conflated them to where perhaps it really doesn’t matter much to anyone anymore, there are times it’s worth knowing which is which. If you’re writing in a more formal register, or perhaps your fiction is a “period piece” with slightly dusty conventions, you might want to know how to use these words in the old-fashioned way. If you don’t care, you can stop reading here. Seriously. Don’t waste your time. 

Still with me? Cool.

Envy is what the King James Version of the Bible called “covetousness.” Remember in the KJV , the tenth commandment: “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor anything that is thy neighbor’s.” That’s about envy. Wanting what someone else has because, well, you want it. It’s better than what you have, so you want it. It’s not necessarily an emotional situation (“She’s going to London again and I am so envious!”), but it’s about wanting/doing something someone else has/does.

Now let’s say that someone broke this commandment and not only envied that wife, but “took up with her” as they used to say. (You know. Had an affair. Broke the seventh commandment.) The husband, when he figured that out, probably became jealous. And it might have led to someone breaking the sixth one, too. (I’ll let you look that one up.)

What’s the difference? Even today, the first definition of “jealous” in the online Merriam-Webster Dictionary is “intolerant of rivalry or unfaithfulness.” Next comes “disposed to suspect rivalry or unfaithfulness.” It’s emotional. It’s not about things, it’s about emotion, and often it’s specifically the emotion connected to a lover/spouse. One might also be jealous of their position in the workplace, if there appears to be some young upstart threatening it, or of their time with family, if work insists on encroaching. The thing is, there’s emotion at stake. Not things. Feelings.

In everyday usage no one’s likely to correct you if you use “jealous” to mean “covetous.” I am SO JELLY, as the saying goes now. (It means envious of a thing. Not that someone’s stealing your bae. Unless of course someone IS stealing your bae. But anyway, let’s move on.) In my work, if I note that one or the other word would be (pedantically) appropriate to a situation, I usually tag it in a comment to the author, explain the situation, and let them decide. It’s their work, not mine.

“The neighbor brought my husband a homemade pie while I was gone. I envy her baking skills; I’m jealous of her for spending time with him.” As I said, in everyday usage no one’s likely to call you out. If you prefer to observe the difference, bravo. If not, that’s cool, too.

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