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Do you have to be jealous of someone in toto as opposed to a specific thing they have or do?

Is the fear of losing that person a key component of jealousy, whereas you can be envious of someone you barely know? I.e. is some sort of relationship (not necessarily romantic) required or implied by the use of 'jealous'?

Is one of these stronger or more negative?

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5 Answers

up vote 5 down vote accepted

Wiktionary's definition of jealous notes,

Some usage guides seek to distinguish "jealous" from “envious”, using jealous to mean “protective of one’s own position or possessions” – one “jealously guards what one has” – and envious to mean “desirous of others’ position or possessions” – one “envies what others have”. However, this distinction is not reflected in usage, as reflected in the quotations of famous authors ... using the word jealous in the sense “envious (of the possessions of others)”.

Wiktionary gives Twain and Wilde as examples. Plenty of other historical examples exist, such as this 1888 piece noting that

these colonies are bitterly jealous of each other’s position

Interestingly, Etymonline also discusses about jealous that

Most of the words for 'envy' ... had from the outset a hostile force, based on 'look at' (with malice), 'not love,' etc. Conversely, most of those which became distinctive terms for 'jealousy' were originally used also in a good sense, 'zeal, emulation.' [Buck, pp.1138-9]

which may provide some clue about why envy only seems to have a negative sense, about coveting or resenting, whereas the energies of jealousy can be somewhat positive (guarding that which one loves or seeking to emulate that which one admires).

Indeed, if we look at examples of the obsolete uses of envy in Wiktionary, such as "hatred, enmity, ill-feeling," they sound worse than being jealous:

1485, Thomas Malory, Le Morte Darthur, Book X:
‘Sir,’ seyde Sir Launcelot unto Kynge Arthur, ‘by this cry that ye have made ye woll put us that bene aboute you in grete jouparté, for there be many knyghtes that hath envy to us [...].’

Ultimately, how you qualify these words (do you sigh, to indicate that your envy is merely a wistful desire? do you write that the person had a burning envy, or a playful jealousy, or a jealousy that knew no bounds?) will determine which is the stronger, or more negative, for today's speakers. As @Hal points out, either is likely to be understood.

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Excellent answer, thanks! –  buildsucceeded Sep 15 '11 at 18:23
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Vastly simplified:

  • Jealousy: You have it and are afraid of losing it.
  • Envy: Someone else has it and you want it.
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Envy and jealousy have distinct meanings, and are often confused and used interchangeably. According to Wikipedia, this is inappropriate:

"While jealousy involves people, the target of envy is people’s possessions."

Often, however, one can be jealous and envious of the same thing at the same time, which is where I think making a true distinction between the two is not that important.

Further, the concept itself has a long history of overlapping usage. As one of the most difficult to express in language, it was one of the last to receive an unambiguous term:

Classical Latin used invidia, without strictly differentiating between envy and jealousy. It was not until the postclassical era that Latin borrowed the late and poetic Greek word zelotypia and the associated adjective zelosus. It is from this adjective that are derived French jaloux, Provençal gelos, Italian geloso, and Spanish celoso. (Lloyd, 1995, via Wikipedia)

I would argue that, when used interchangeably, envy is somewhat milder than jealousy. "I envy your lunch", when said to a co-worker for instance, could be considered a compliment of their tastes, but "I am jealous of your lunch" may possibly suggest that you are about to take it from them.

The most important point to consider is that you will be understood by any English speaker regardless of which term you choose.

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People use the terms jealousy and envy interchangeably. Jealousy in modern language has come to mean what is technically defined as envy.

Jealousy means fear of losing something you have to someone else. Envy means that you want something that someone else has.

However, that's not how people use the term Jealousy. Typical use:

"I got tickets to the concert!" "Damn, I'm jealous."

Here, the person who says that they are experiencing jealousy isn't afraid of losing something that they have; they are just observing that they want something that someone else has.

So to answer your question: They mean totally different things in theory, but not in practice.

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The distinction is whether or not you covet what they have. If you're envious, it's because you want it for yourself. If you're jealous, you just don't want them to have whatever it is.

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