There’s always somebody who has something you want but do not have. It could be a shiny new BMW, a piece of clothing, the perfect significant other, or a limited-edition holographic trading card. Whatever it is, you want what they’ve got and feel pretty bummed that you don’t have it. Call it jealousy, call it envy, or… what do you call this unsettling feeling?
A Deadly Sin: Envy
In the scenario above, what you are experiencing is one of the Seven Deadly Sins: envy. Envy is when you desire something another person has — especially if they’re enjoying it. It brings about feelings of inferiority and resentful covetousness.
Envy is not necessarily a violent state, although it can lead to the envious party intentionally bringing the other person down. This can be through bullying, destruction of the coveted object, or merely harboring a grudge. But usually, envy will just make you feel miserable.
The Green-Eyed Monster: Jealousy
Jealousy, Shakespeare’s green-eyed monster, happens when you feel a third party could take something away that you already have. We commonly experience jealousy in relationships and rivalries. Jealousy tends to be more aggressive and anxious, with the jealous party acting out of heightened suspicion that someone will wrong them.
If you see someone flirting with your significant other and you get that sinking, territorial feeling, this is jealousy. You detect a threat to your ownership status. This is also the case when new talent comes around. Say you’re the lead singer in a choir. When a new member comes in who has a better vocal range than you do, not only are you envious of their skill, you’re jealous of them, too. They threaten to take away your status as top dog.
Even with this clear distinction, we tend to have a hard time differentiating between the two terms. For one, “jealous” is used as a catch-all term. People say they’re jealous all the time when they’re envious. Hardly anyone corrects this semantic mistake, so it’s become permissible to use “jealous” in place of “envious.” Secondly, jealousy and envy are partners in crime. When you’re jealous, it’s almost as though you’re anticipating losing what you have and imagining your future envy.
Jealousy and envy are the motivation behind murder and trickery in Shakespearian comedies and dramas, reasons for punishment in Dante’s inferno, and cause for warning in theological writings. But one thing they aren’t is the same. Envy is wishing you had something. Jealousy is hoping what you have isn’t taken away.