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Yale 62

Envy vs. JealousyRoman Weil

By Roman Weil

No trick question here:  How do you distinguish envy from jealousy?

I’ve carried around a distinction that an old mentor helped me work out several decades ago.

Recently, I quit writing textbooks and teaching full time so I have muuuch time on my hands and have been reading non-technical material for the first time in a looong time.  I’ve discovered that I enjoy, and learn from, the essays of Joseph Epstein, former [or as he likes to say, quondam] professor of English at Northwestern.   [His use of quondam, when he could just say former, is one of about only three words I don’t like in his writing.]

One of his two dozen books is Envy, published in 2003.  In it, he distinguishes envy from jealousy roughly backwards from the way I do. I get scared, because he is so learned about the language, and so clever in its use, that it makes me question my understanding.  In reading Envy, I notice Epstein’s acknowledging a 1991 book, The Psychology of Jealousy & Envy, edited by Peter Salovey.  I’ve heard of that guy.  I’d bet he distinguishes the two words in the Preface.  I’d lose.

Editor Salovey includes in his book as last chapter a description of research by young Professor Salovey in which he describes research “about the circumstances under which we as human beings are most likely to experience feelings of envy or jealousy.” [p. 272].  He describes tests of two hypotheses:

“Hypothesis 1:  Envy is most likely to be felt when….
Hypothesis 2:  Jealousy is most likely to felt when ….” [p. 272]

Nowhere can I find in Professor Salovey’s chapter a distinction between envy and jealousy.  What a disappointment.  I do find such a distinction in Editor Salovey’s first chapter, by W.G. Parrott, then and now a professor at Georgetown, which aligns better with my long-time understanding.

OK, ready?  Have you a distinction in mind?  You’ll enjoy the following more if you have it to rub against these.

Roman’s distinction.  Envy:  I want what you have.  Jealousy:  I want what you have and I deserve it; it should be mine.  Envy is harmless.  Jealousy can be dangerous—when you have a lover.

Epstein’s distinction [p. 4].  “…one is jealous of what one has, envious of what other people have. Jealousy is not always pejorative; one can after all be jealous of one’s dignity, civil rights, honor.  Envy … is [almost] always pejorative…. Never, to put it very gently, a handsome or good thing, envy.

Parrott’s distinction [p. 23].  “Envy occurs when another has what one lacks oneself, whereas jealousy is concerned with the loss of a relationship one has. Jealousy concerns relationships with other people, whereas envy extends to characteristics and other possessions.  In envy the rival’s gain need not be at one’s own expense; in jealousy one’s own loss is someone else’s gain.”

Parrott has it right, I think.  Epstein not.  It’s about the only thing of his I’ve read that I disagree with, however:  “Envy is always pejorative.”  I envy Nolan Ryan his fastball; Clint Eastwood his rugged good looks. Is either of those pejorative?  No.  Is either jealousy?  Not to my thinking.

One of my go-to authorities for American word usage is Bryan Garner.  He says, in Modern American Usage, about envy in contrasting it with jealousy: “…resentful contemplation of a more fortunate person.”  I regret he used “resentful,” as I think one can envy without feeling resentment. Epstein agrees with Garner.  Garner restricts jealousy to “affairs of the heart,” so Garner would not allow either term to apply to my feelings about Ryan’s fastball.

What did you think about the distinction before you read what the experts say?  What do you think now?

Post-script.  I showed the above to Pat O’Conner, she of  She wrote me as follows:  “Personally, I think jealousy is a damaging emotion, but envy is not. Though ‘envy’ was originally malevolent (from Latin invidia), it can also be expressed, for example, in admiration of another person’s accomplishments, or emulation of that person: ‘I envy your ability to make such silky sauces’ (or whatever).”

2 comments to Envy v Jealousy

  • Cory Christopher T.


    I jealously envy your note about topics including Epstein’’s superb note on aging, which I also wish I could emulate. Thanks, pal. I think I’ll recommend to our current corresponding secretaries the they seek permission to reprint Epstein, with your quite Epsteinian intro, for the class.



  • Roman Weil

    Thanks, Chris, for kudos. In my 80th b’day note, I give a hyperlink to Epstein’s essay that he wrote on his 80th b’day. No need to get permission to reprint it. Roman