Sunday, March 25, 2012

Apple #576: Jealousy vs. Envy

So a friend of mine recently bought a house. I'll call her Margaretta. (No, her name isn't really Margaret. I'm thinking of that part in The Sound of Music when the children go to the convent to talk to Maria, but they only get Sister Margaretta, and she won't let them in. They say her name over and over so plaintively, "Oh, Sister Margaretta, please. Please, Sister Margaretta. Please.")

So my friend Margaretta bought a house. I wish I owned my own house. I think this means that I am jealous. Or am I envious? I know there's a difference between the two, but what is it? And which of the two am I?

I think maybe I'd like a bungalow like this one. Nothing too big or too fancy. But I would like a big tree out front, for some shade.
(Photo from StarCraft Custom Builders)

I'm looking at my Oxford English Dictionary, and there are scads of definitions for these terms. I'll summarize the best I can while still preserving some sense of organization.

  • Looking into my OED, I'm actually rather shocked at how bad envy is. I'd thought it meant something along the lines of wanting what you don't have, but no. It goes way farther than that.
  • Envy comes from the Latin invidere, which strictly speaking, means to look upon. But somewhere in there, even in Roman times, it took on a negative connotation: to look maliciously upon.
  • Our English definitions not only include the malicious part, they make it a pretty major element of what the word means.
  • Envy is first of all, "malignant or hostile feeling; ill-will, malice, enmity."
  • Whew, that's harsh. I do not bear any of these feelings against Margaretta. Not even close. But wait, there's more.
  • "Active evil, harm, mischief."
  • Egad, no.

The Wicked Witch of the West might be the best personification of the malicious meanings of envy. She wants those ruby slippers so badly, she's filled with ill will, malice, and enmity toward Dorothy. By the way, to be "green with envy" means you're so filled with envy, you're sick to the point of turning green.
(Photo sourced from The Pop Culture Divas)

  • Not until way down in definition 3 do we get to the plain wanting-what-someone-else-has part:
  • "The feeling of mortification and ill-will occasioned by the contemplation of superior advantages possessed by another."
  • Well, that's closer to what I mean, but I don't feel mortified, and I don't feel any ill will toward Margaretta. I'm happy for her that she owns a house. It must give her a great sense of achievement, and I can imagine how gratifying that must be for her. I'm glad she's experiencing that. All that said, I'd like to own my own house and experience something like that too.
  • OK, now, down in definition 4b, we get a much tamer meaning: "A longing for the advantages enjoyed by another person."
  • Yeah, this is much closer to what I mean. But I don't think I want to say "I'm envious" and then have to direct people all the way down to definition 4b to arrive at my true meaning. Let's look at jealousy and see if that comes any closer.

  • Jealous (jealousy's root word) starts out pretty harsh, too: "Vehement in feeling, as in wrath, desire, or devotion."
  • I think most of us use the word jealous with a much tamer sense than this, probably not approaching anything like "vehement."
  • Later definitions get more specific and tend to focus more on the desire part, especially in an amorous sense.
  • Definition 2 is "covetous of the love of another, fond, lustful." This doesn't apply at all to what I feel about Margaretta and her house.
  • Definition 3 gets into the ways in which jealousy mess with the jealous one's head: "Zealous or solicitous for the preservation or well-being of something possessed or esteemed" (That is, you own something or you think you do, and you start to get all protective of it, out of fear that you might lose it); "vigilant or careful in guarding; suspiciously careful or watchful."

This image gets jealousy about right. The kid in the foreground is angry, begrudging what's going on behind him, looking a bit sideways at the two kids hugging behind him. One of the huggers is taunting the foreground kid--or maybe that's only how the foreground kid perceives it.
(Image from MotiFake)

  • Definition 4 really digs into it: "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."
  • I don't feel any kind of rivalry or competition with Margaretta. I'm not trying to hang onto something in the face of her pursuit of my goods. I'm beginning to think that jealousy doesn't apply to my situation at all, but I'm pretty fascinated by how detailed the OED is getting with this. It even makes me wonder if some definition-writer for the OED was ever afflicted with jealousy at some point.
  • It parses this very detailed definition still further, saying that jealousy takes on this particular characteristic in relation to sexual love: "Apprehensive of being displaced in the love or good-will of some one; distrustful of the faithfulness of wife, husband, or lover."
  • There are still further definitions, and they all deal pretty much with suspicion. "Suspicious, apprehensive of evil," "Doubtful, mistrustful," "Suspiciously vigilant against," "Requiring suspicious or careful vigilance," etc.

Leave it to the French to depict jealousy in all its fullness. In this 1994 remake of L'Enfer (Torment or Hell), Cluzet plays a hotel manager who is increasingly suspicious that his wife is cheating on him. As the movie progresses, his jealousy becomes more and more obsessive until, well, until things go very wrong.

The original L'Enfer, filmed in 1964, intended to go even further. The director, Clouzot, filmed a lot of sequences in which he played with lighting like mad. The effect is an evocative indication of the distortion of the jealous husband's mind, the way he sees her as constantly changeable, taunting, yet always out of reach. I think the green/blue/yellow portions are especially effective.

I say the film "intended" to go further because the director suffered a heart attack during filming and the movie was never finished. A documentary from 2009 (L'Enfer d'Henri-Georges Clouzot) showed some of the extant pieces of the film together including test shots like the ones in the above sequence, along with commentary and stills of what happened during filming.

By the way, don't confuse these with the 2005 L'Enfer. That one, like the 1994 film, also stars Emmanuelle BĂ©art, but the storyline is completely different, about three sisters with a terrible event in their pasts.

And, as long as we're on the subject of the Fench and jealousy, there's also Alain Robbe-Grillet's Jealousy. But while it's quite gripping and travels much the same path that L'Enfer does, it's a novella and it doesn't have any pictures in it, which sadly makes it less exciting for most website audiences.

  • All right, now that I've distracted you with all sorts of pretty moving pictures, I'll get back to the topic at hand. I think it's safe to say that jealousy, which seems to involve a lot of suspicion, guarding of goods (or people) one already has against possibly losing them to someone else, most often in the context of sexual relationships, does not apply to my desire for a house like Margaretta's.

  • So if jealousy isn't what I mean, and envy is kind of what I mean, but only way down in Definition 4, maybe there's another word that would work better. The only other word I can think of that might fit my situation is covet.
  • This word isn't used all that often anymore -- I think because it makes too many people think of the 10th Commandment, "You shall not covet your neighbor's house; you shall not covet your neighbor's wife, nor his male servant, nor his female servant, nor his ox, nor his donkey, nor anything that is your neighbor's." Nobody wants to admit, with something so obvious as a simple word choice, that they're going around violating one of the Ten Commandments. (I don't care if you say you're not religious; I bet you're still too spooked to use this verb in real life.)
  • But maybe the shoe fits. I'm not afraid to wear shoes that fit. So let's consult the dictionary and find out.
  • Covet's primary focus is on desire, but mainly as it relates to material goods.
  • Covet comes from the Latin cupere, which is also the ancestor of our word cupidity. It, too, means "passionate desire," but it very quickly becomes "inordinate greed." Covet probably isn't too far away from that.
  • Definition 1 of covet says it means "to desire eagerly" but that's said in reference to things or material objects.
  • That's true of my situation. I desire a house, and that's a material thing. But I don't know if I'd say "eagerly." Let's see what else the dictionary says, though. Maybe definitions farther down will fit better.
  • Ah, by definition 3, the eager desire takes a turn toward the negative: "To desire culpably; to long for (what belongs to another)." Here's where covet gets all commandment-y.
  • The fourth and final definition is, succinctly, "To lust" or "To have inordinate or culpable desire for."

You may remember what Dr. Hannibal Lecter taught us about coveting. He asks Clarice, about the serial killer "Buffalo Bill," "What is his nature?" She guesses that he kills women, but Dr. Lecter says, "No. That is incidental. He covets." Buffalo Bill (Jamie Gum or Jame Gumb) is perhaps the best example of how coveting can go seriously wrong.
(Photo from

  • Well, I'm not lusting after Margaretta's house, or any house, for that matter. I would like to own a house. I wish I could, like Margaretta, own my own house. But I don't think that wish is inordinate or culpable.
  • It looks like definition 4 of envy is the one that fits best. I am envious (definition 4) that Margaretta owns her own house. There.


  • To sum up, here are the basic differences between envy, jealousy, and covetousness:
  • Envy: "A longing for the advantages enjoyed by another person" sometimes to the point where you feel malignant or hostile feelings toward that person. Someone else has something and you'd like to have it.
  • Jealousy: you have something, or you're in a relationship with someone, and you're all freaked out that you might lose it. You get very suspicious and guarded lest you lose whatever it is you have to a real or perceived rival. You have something and you're afraid of losing it.
  • Covetousness: you really want something, especially some material goods of some kind, but you want it to the point of lust.

None of these things is really a good emotion to have. I wouldn't recommend that anybody go around feeling envious all day, for example. And in exploring these words, we've encountered some pretty unsavory people. So in this sense, I've violated the spirit of the Daily Apple.

But I did want to know the distinctions between these words, and I do feel better for knowing them. And I would recommend going around consulting the dictionary all day, if you felt like it. So I think the appropriate thing to celebrate here is the Oxford English Dictionary.

Go, OED!

Related entries: Eat Your Heart Out

My copy of the Oxford English Dictionary. Perhaps my favorite reference book of all time.
IMDb, Inferno (1964), Hell (1994), Hell (2005)
Stuart Jeffries, "Clouzot's towering inferno," The Guardian, October 29, 2009
Zola Levitt Ministries, Ten Commandments (includes Hebrew translations)
God Didn't Say That, The Ten Commandments Don't Forbid Coveting (actually a quibble over translations. Maintains that the verb should have been translated as take rather than covet.)

Scorpio Tales, Expressions & Sayings, G


  1. If I'm ever gonna be on jeopardy, Im coming here for my information :D This blog is huge..

  2. Sweet! Thanks, Stormwolf. I have an entry about Jeopardy, by the way:


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