Wednesday, March 2

Posted by Laurel Garver on Wednesday, March 02, 2016 6 comments
Welcome to my new periodic series I'm calling "Word Smart," an expansion of my "Homophone Helps" series. In it, we will look at two words and/or concepts that writers confuse, offering clarifications to help you express your ideas most clearly and accurately.

I often hear the term "jealous"  used incorrectly as a synonym for envious or covetous or even greedy. And dictionaries, because they are descriptive (reflecting what is seen in speech) rather than prescriptive (defining rules), have let the erroneous conflation become acceptable.

I hope you want better for your fiction. Because there are very good reasons to NOT conflate these two very different emotions.


A rival stirs jealousy (Photo from

Jealousy is a very complex emotion that arises when you fear losing something rightfully yours. It most often arises in threatened relationships. Generally jealousy involves at least three parties--you, your beloved/valued thing, and a rival. This rival threatens to take away the beloved and break the bond you have.

A classic example of jealousy can be found in Shakespeare's Othello. In it, a villain named Iago convinces Othello that his wife is cheating on him. Othello's jealousy grows into a murderous rage. He orders a hit on his supposed rival, then murders his supposedly unfaithful spouse. When he later discovers the infidelity was a lie concocted by Iago, Othello is overcome with remorse and kills himself.

Jealousy is built upon distrust. It finds fertile ground to grow in relationships when trust between partners is weak and/or one partner is deeply insecure and fearful about the relationship.

While in the throes of jealousy, one wants to cling to the beloved while simultaneously feeling fearful, suspicious, hurt, betrayed, and angry.

Jealousy can also be experienced regarding more abstract things rightfully yours, like your good name, reputation or accomplishments. I suspect this is where the confusion with envy happens, If someone else gets praise for your accomplishments, is it rightly envy? No. They took what is yours. Your accomplishment, your deserved praise. You would rightly be jealous.

Teens often like to play jealousy games as a way to test whether someone is a beloved. They flirt with a possible rival to see if feelings of hurt and betrayal are stirred up in their love interest.

Non-exclusive relationships, like siblings with parents, can also lead to complex jealousies--a sister might see her brother as rival for Mom's time or Dad's affection, relational perks that are rightly hers (but also rightly his). Ditto with friend groups. Valerie is spending more time with Morgan than with me. But I'm her BFF! That sense of rivalry and betrayal, of a wedge in a relationship, is jealousy.


Photo by greyerbaby at

Envy is the desire for some good you do not have but another does. Another word for this is coveting, though to covet can simply mean yearn for or deeply desire, Envy involves only two parties, you and the envied one. You want to take away what they have--it is desire mixed with malice.

Some say that consumer culture and advertising are intended to stoke feelings of envy.  But note that envy is deeper than greed, You don't merely want a Maserati, for example. You want to take away your neighbor's black Maserati and keep if for yourself. An envious person couldn't enjoy having a matching car. The envious could only enjoy the car if it is gained through another's loss.

Desiring someone else's partner is therefore envy. You want to take away their beloved and keep him or her for yourself. Should you succeed, you would be the rival another is jealous of, but you don't actually experience jealousy in this case. The relationship did not belong to you; you yearned for it and maliciously stole it from another.

When your coworker is lauded for his accomplishments, the emotion it stirs is envy. You desire to take away both his accomplishments and his praise. There is no beloved thing of yours betraying you or being taken from you in this case.

When a someone seems to hate you because you have a talent they do not, they are not "just jealous" but rather envious. Make sense?

Final thoughts

When deciding how to describe one of these emotions, remember this: jealousy involves fear of losing something rightfully ours. Envy involves taking something another has.

Interestingly, in the Ten Commandments, envy or coveting is condemned ("Thou shalt not covet your neighbor's wife. Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's animals or his servants or anything that belongs to your neighbor"). Jealousy is not mentioned.

In the Torah/Old Testament, God calls himself "a jealous God" who desires that his people be faithful in worshiping only Him. As creator and protector of his people, he expects them to not give allegiance to Zeus or Ashera or Horus or Odin or the Tree Spirit. Thus jealousy is a "relationship protective" sort of emotion. It becomes pathological when there is no reason for distrust of the beloved, or when exclusivity is demanded in a naturally non-exclusive relationship (such as friendship).

Do these words have distinct images in your mind, or do you confuse or conflate them?


  1. Forgive me, for I have sinned. :) At least, I'm sure I must have. I think I intuited the difference between these two words and so probably used them correctly most of the time, but now I'll be scouring my mss to make sure I got it right!

    1. I rarely see "envy" misused, but often see envious feelings mis-labeled as "jealous." It's also possible for certain stimuli to dredge up both feelings at once. You might feel envious of a talented, beautiful person who spends time with your spouse, wishing you had her qualities, and also feel jealous because he is giving her time and attention.

  2. This was a wonderful analysis of the difference between he two traits. I hadn't really thought about them that way.

    1. Thanks. It's hearing people misuse jealous to mean envious over and over and over that prompted this.

  3. Loved those examples. This is food for thought when writing.