“I’m going on a two-week vacation.”
“You have no idea how jealous I am!”
I’ve observed this use of language for a while now. While part of me wants to immediately correct it, and let people know that they aren’t actually “jealous” but “envious,” I also realize that language is what we make of it—and I’m starting to think that people’s use of “jealous” includes a meaning that I’ve always ascribed to “envy” instead.
According to Richard Smith, “envy is a reaction to lacking something. Jealousy is a reaction to the threat of losing something (usually someone).” This is how I’ve always interpreted the distinction between the two. For me, jealousy has always been the “green-eyed monster” that makes you want to protect your own relationship and immediately hate (and want to dispense with) the person who has “designs on what is yours”—most often, your love interest. It’s the word that describes a man telling another man, “Dude, hands off!” Or a woman telling another woman, “Bitch, back off!” Meanwhile, to me, envy has always been a kind of low-simmer desire for something that somebody else has.
So, when I hear the type of conversation at the start of this post, I immediately think to myself, “No, you’re envious of them, not jealous …”
The eleventh edition of Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary gives its first definition of jealousy as “intolerant of rivalry or unfaithfulness.” This is what I’ve always understood it to mean. Further, the same dictionary says that envy is the “painful or resentful awareness of an advantage enjoyed by another joined with a desire to possess the same advantage.” Although I’ve never associated envy with either “painful” or “resentful” (when I’ve used it myself, I’ve meant it as a kind of wistful yearning), this fits with my own distinction between the two words.
However, a usage note from Merriam-Webster also says:
Envy is most often used to refer to a covetous feeling toward another person’s attributes, possessions, or stature in life. Many people use jealous to mean the same thing. “I am envious of his good fortune” could be changed to “I am jealous of his good fortune” without substantially changing the meaning of the sentence for most people. So, jealous can be used for this sense of envious.
So, where does that leave us—or me? It seems that envy is a kind of subset of jealousy. While I have always explicitly separated the two, apparently a lot of people don’t. And while most people understand that envy is a more narrow definition of jealousy (if not separate, as I would have it), there also doesn’t seem to be any confusion when the latter is used in every context. As an editor, it also means that I have no objectively clear reason to change some uses of “jealousy” to “envy”—as much as it seems strange to me not to do so.