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We have two similar words in envy and jealousy. The American Heritage Dic. defines them as below.

jealousy:

  1. A jealous attitude or disposition.
  2. Close vigilance.

envy:

n. pl. en·vies

  1. a. A feeling of discontent and resentment aroused by and in conjunction with desire for the possessions or qualities of another.
    b. The object of such feeling: Their new pool made them the envy of their neighbors.
  2. Obsolete Malevolence.

tr.v. en•vied, en•vy•ing, en•vies

  1. To feel envy toward (another person).
  2. To regard (something) with envy.


The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fifth Edition copyright ©2015 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.

We also see that envy is considered as one of the 7 deadliest sins:

What it is

Envy is the desire for others' traits, status, abilities, or situation.

Why you do it

Because other people are so much luckier, smarter, more attractive, and better than you.

Your punishment in Hell will be

You'll be put in freezing water.

(http://www.deadlysins.com/envy/)

Now comes the core issue as we glance the definition of envious:

adj. Feeling, expressing, or characterized by envy: "At times he regarded the wounded soldiers in an envious way.... He wished that he, too, had a wound, a red badge of courage" (Stephen Crane).


The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fifth Edition copyright ©2015 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.

It definitely comes out to me at least as a positive feeling. One of healthy competition. Our English teacher used to say, “It is much healthier to be envious than jealous.”

It gives me an impression as if the same word-root "envy" means a highly abominable emotion but when we convert it to "envious" [Adj.] it suddenly acquires a healthy demeanor. It is perplexing, confusing to me. Although I have a feeling that envy is a positive feeling while the feeling of jealousy has a negative overtone.

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    The attitudes represented in the "Seven Deadly Sins" belong to a particular religion (and from my observation, only some sects of that religion). They do not represent the English language or the attitudes of all English speakers. To me, an English-speaker but not a follower of that religion, envy is fairly neutral.
    – jamesqf
    Feb 10, 2016 at 5:31
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    Haven't you ever heard "green with envy"? These days being "green" is viewed as a positive trait!
    – Hot Licks
    Nov 29, 2020 at 0:48
  • @jamessqf For better and for worse, Christian tradition is pervasive throughout secular culture, including an understanding of the idea behind "seven deadly sins." For communication to sound "neutral" to a wide audience, it has to respect that, even if one disagrees with it. When speaking with specific individuals, or close acquaintances, broad appeal doesn't matter as much, since you know the person, and can talk to them as an individual.
    – jpaugh
    Dec 7, 2020 at 18:14
  • @jamesqf I wonder though if the second, obsolete usage mentioned is maybe the one meant, at least as some point? The concept of "deadly sins" pre-dates Hellenistic Greece, and seems to have attached itself to christianity later, probably through Dante's Inferno, and Canterbury tales. But in the mean time the concept has gone through numerous translations and languages, so it seems possible that if there were two meanings, the now obsolete one could have been the original intended meaning, but that is hard to determine from my armchair :). Dec 7, 2020 at 21:17
  • @jpaugh: I don't really see envy much used in a "deadly sin" sense, though of course I don't have time (or desire!) to read everything written in English. To me, it seems used in a neutral to positive sense: envying what someone else has means you'd like it too, which almost verges on the envied person being a role model. (Thus the Red Badge of Courage example.) Contrast with jealousy, which generally implies that you want to deprive the person who has the thing, as much or more than you want it yourself - e.g. jealous spouses killing the spouse as well as the lover.
    – jamesqf
    Dec 9, 2020 at 3:05

4 Answers 4

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Being "envious" is not considered positive by English speakers. It means to feel envy and as you know envy is not considered a positive emotion. It has a strong sense of resentment at another's good fortune.

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    Second that (+1) - being "envious" is not a good/positive thing. "Jealous" implies some sort of sexual feeling - "envious" implies some sort of object being the coveted item (car, house, job... but not a woman/man - relationship - that's jealousy). Feb 10, 2016 at 1:13
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    Envy has different connotations. In popular usage, it can be benign or even good. From Wikipedia: "Psychologists have recently suggested that there may be two types of envy: malicious envy and benign envy—benign envy being proposed as a type of positive motivational force." Feb 10, 2016 at 1:46
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    Thanks a ton. benign envy, concept is an eye- opener. I am not sure the following can be generalized "Jealous" implies some sort of sexual feeling - "envious" implies some sort of object being the coveted item (car, house, job... but not a woman/man - relationship - that's jealousy)." Is it from a dictionary or some such source?
    – Abhilaaj
    Feb 10, 2016 at 10:36
  • The denotation is generally negative. But the word is often heavy with contextual connotation, and often used in jest, sometime reversing the negativity, or implying an intentional disregard for the negative aspects. It often seems to be used in a context which subtly implies "I know it's technically wrong, but I'm going to continue to envy anyway because it feels good, and it's not so much envy that I'll get in trouble" Dec 7, 2020 at 21:23
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Envy has different connotations, ranging from bad to good. At one extreme, one can be "consumed with envy." At the other extreme, envy can be roughly synonymous with admiration or respect: "Her intelligence and radiant personality made her the envy of her classmates."

Incidentally, I would take that Seven Deadly Sins site with a grain of salt. For example, it lists pride as a deadly sin. While people should certainly strive for humility, is it really wrong to be proud of getting an A on a test? Anger is similarly a mixed bag; I'm proud to hate people who pollute the planet, for example.

There are similarly many great people that I respect, admire and envy, all at the same time.

From Wikipedia, Envy: "Psychologists have recently suggested that there may be two types of envy: malicious envy and benign envy—benign envy being proposed as a type of positive motivational force."

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  • Wow, after reading you, I am sure,I knew very little. Thanks a ton. benign envy, concept is an eye- opener. I am very happy being on this wonderful site.
    – Abhilaaj
    Feb 10, 2016 at 10:33
  • Well, I have to confess, I THOUGHT the word "envy" suggested benign envy to begin with. It sounds like the mainstream definition is more hard core: envy is considered a very bad thing...except by the psychologists who recently introduced the concept of "benign envy." But when I hear or read the word "envy" in common usage, it really doesn't sound like an incredibly negative thing. How many times have we heard someone say to another person's face, "I envy you"? If I tell a professional salsa dancer I envy him, I'm saying, "God, that must be a cool experience!" Feb 11, 2016 at 3:01
  • This answer is too involved in moral speculation.
    – Conrado
    Nov 29, 2020 at 0:50
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"Positive" and "negative" moral connotations, whether absolute or relative, are not really within the dictionary's area of competency. However, you can expect from it a summary of a word's meaning and history.

Envy means, according to Mirriam-Webster:

1: painful or resentful awareness of an advantage enjoyed by another joined with a desire to possess the same advantage (M-W)

Painful and resentful definitely seem unpleasant to me, making this sort of envy undesireable. This sort of awareness is usually not an advantage, although the "desire to possess" might possibly propel one toward something "good".

The history of "Envy" is equally nasty, and apparently included some moral judgement back in the day:

late 13c., from Old French envie "envy, jealousy, rivalry" (10c.), from Latin invidia "envy, jealousy" (source also of Spanish envidia, Portuguese inveja), from invidus "envious, having hatred or ill-will," from invidere "to envy, hate," earlier "look at (with malice), cast an evil eye upon," from in- "upon" (from PIE root *en "in") + videre "to see" (from PIE root *weid- "to see"). (Etymonline, emphasis added)

Envious simply means

1: feeling or showing envy (M-W, and it always has meant the same)

Jealous, on the other hand, is part of the same etymological family as "zealous" (which simply means roughly "with passion"), but now is often synonymous with "envious":

1: hostile toward a rival or one believed to enjoy an advantage : ENVIOUS His success made his old friends jealous. (M-W)

Again, note that hostile is unpleasant at best, although "jealous" has other uses.

Perhaps the most obvious difference between "jealous" and "envious" is that you can be jealous of your own things, but the object of envy always belongs to someone else.

One might almost say that these two words are used as if they were interchangeable ... The words are scarcely synonymous, however. Envy means discontented longing for someone else’s advantages. Jealousy means unpleasant suspicion, or apprehension of rivalship. —Theodore M. Bernstein, The Careful Writer, 1965 (Quoted in M-W)

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Envy is not a good thing for one to feel, it is at best a minor flaw in your character.

But, someone else feeling envy OF you is a bit of praise. This can result in someone stating or admitting to envy as a form of praise “you did such a wonderful job, I’m a bit envious of how smoothly you handled that, I couldn’t do that nearly so well”. This may or may not be literally true, if true, it only reflects well on the speaker as honesty. It reflects well on the person being spoken to, whether the speaker is being totally honest or not, because it implies that one has or did something that is worthy of being envious of.

The worst possibly interpretation of someone is being envious OF you is that they have had it hard and you should probably be a bit sorry for them. For example a childless couple viewing a couple with kids. The worst possible interpretation of being envious of someone else is that you are a terrible person that is not to be trusted because you will act on that envy.

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  • @Conrado: not a definition, circular or otherwise. An explanation of why being told one is the object of envy should be considered praise, you can replace “worthy of being envious of” with “desirable” if you like, that’s close enough although not quite spot on (there’s a bit of socially acceptable involved as well).
    – jmoreno
    Nov 29, 2020 at 2:46

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