When I was at school (in the 80's) I learnt that jealousy and envy meant different things: you are jealous if you think someone will take what you have, you are envious if you want what they have.

In general usage now they appear to mean the same thing, to the point where envy is rarely used while 'jelly' and 'well jel' have become slang (clearly derived from jealous) meaning to covet what someone else has.

However, I think a statement like "she had a jealous boyfriend" will still be clearly understood to mean that the boyfriend is excessively possessive of his current girlfriend rather than that that boyfriend is chasing after other girls.

Has the meaning of jealousy changed in current usage?

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    "you are jealous if you think someone will take what you have" Really? Commented Sep 2, 2015 at 9:21
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    Blessed Geek: yes, really. Commented Sep 2, 2015 at 9:25
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    @BlessedGeek - it's not my opinion, it was what I learnt at school. The term jealousy as meaning specifically the fear of losing something was definitely commonly understood in England as I was growing up. John Lennon even had a hit single "Jealous Guy" that he wrote as an apology after beating up his wife because he thought she was cheating on him. Everybody understood that he was talking about his own wife and not coveting someone else's.
    – Keith
    Commented Sep 2, 2015 at 10:33
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    Jealousy is also the zeal and obsession over an entity, regardless if you currently have the opportunity to express that obsession or zeal. Commented Sep 2, 2015 at 10:52
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    Certainly "jealous" has a fairly broad set of definitions.
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Sep 2, 2015 at 12:16

4 Answers 4


Other answers have done a good job of outlining how "jealousy/jealous" may be distinguished in meaning from "envy/envious." Therefore, I'll focus mainly on the specific question "Has the meaning of jealousy changed in current usage?"


The meaning of jealousy/jealous has overlapped with that of envy/envious for a very long time; this use (or "misuse," depending on your opinion) of the word greatly predates the 1980s. (On the other hand, it's possible there have been shifts recently in the frequency of use of one versus the other.)

In the Oxford English Dictionary, this falls under definition 4b of jealousy, and there is a list of early examples of the word being used this way:

  1. The state of mind arising from the suspicion, apprehension, or knowledge of rivalry:
    b. in respect of success or advantage: Fear of losing some good through the rivalry of another; resentment or ill-will towards another on account of advantage or superiority, possible or actual, on his part; envy, grudge. [bolding added]
    • [...]
    • 1650 R. Stapleton tr. F. Strada De Bello Belgico vi. 21 Lest this warrelike Preparation might beget a Ielousy in the minds of princes, his Majesty satisfied them by his Ambassadours.
    • a1715 Bp. G. Burnet Hist. Own Time (1724) I. 208 This drew a jealousy on me from the Bishops.
    • 1836 W. Irving Astoria I. 90 There were feuds between the partners themselves, occasioned..by jealousy of rank.

And here is the relevant definition (with historical examples) of jealous from the OED:

  1. Troubled by the belief, suspicion, or fear that the good which one desires to gain or keep for oneself has been or may be diverted to another; resentful towards another on account of known or suspected rivalry:
    b. in respect of success or advantage: Apprehensive of losing some desired benefit through the rivalry of another; feeling ill-will towards another on account of some advantage or superiority which he possesses or may possess; grudging, envious. [bolding added] Const. of (the person, or the advantage).
    • [...]
    • 1477 Caxton tr. R. Le Fèvre Hist. Jason (1913) 42 Alle were Ialouse of him, But Iason neuer thought on none of them.

The meaning of the word has certainly evolved over time, but this particular evolution occurred centuries ago. I'd also like to note that the same ambiguity appears to apply to the related word in modern French, jalousie, as defined by the Centre National de Ressources Textuelles et Lexicales:

  1. 1501 jalousie « envie, dépit que l'on éprouve à l'égard de ce qu'un autre obtient ou possède » (Chastel de joyeuse destinee ds Jardin de plaisance, XLV).

Whether one should use the words "jealousy" or "jealous" with this meaning is a separate question; but I hope I've shown clearly that they not only are, but they have been for quite some time.


The First International Webster's Dictionary (1892) defines jealous as

suspicious, envious, anxious.

So jealousy could have had the meaning envy for over 100 years; the meaning does not seem to have changed.


Being jealous and being envious are two quite different things, yet in common parlance, many people use jealous to mean envious. It's too bad. I hope the English language does not lose this valuable distinction just because of this frequently heard sloppy usage.

For jealous, Merriam-Webster gives: "1.a intolerant of rivalry or unfaithfulness; 1.b disposed to suspect rivalry or unfaithfulness; 2 hostile toward a rival or one believed to enjoy an advantage; 3 vigilant in guarding a possession."

For envious, the same source gives: "feeling or showing a desire to have what someone else has."

  • Can you add more detail about how and when the meaning has changed, rather than just criticizing the use in "common parlance"?
    – herisson
    Commented Sep 3, 2015 at 4:10
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    I doubt that anyone could pinpoint a "when." In any case, the words are still used by many people with the original meaning, so I don't think we can really say the meaning has truly changed. The word *jealous" has simply acquired the extra meaning "envious," which has become one of its most common usages. If you say, "I envy X," you mean you wish you had something X has or were like X in some way. Many people nowadays express this idea by saying, "I'm jealous of X," but that statement should mean that the speaker does not like it when others show interest in X or covet it. Commented Sep 6, 2015 at 11:12
  • What I mean is, do you have any evidence that only one of these definitions is "the original meaning"? For example, what is the earliest attestation of "jealous" for each meaning?
    – herisson
    Commented Sep 24, 2015 at 19:58

I'm envious of the linguistic skills on display here.

My cat Roxy was jealous when she saw Rosie eating her food.

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