Would you believe me if I told you the vast majority of times the word “jealous” is used nowadays, it is used incorrectly? Picture this: Sarah at work is proudly showing off her vacation pics from Aruba, and Jenny—who hasn’t had a holiday in ages—exclaims: “Oh my God, I’m so jealous!”

What Jenny thinks she is saying: “I wish I had gone on that holiday too.”

What Jenny is really saying: “I wish you would stop trying to take away my holiday from me. It’s mine. MINE!”

I don’t know about you, but the second one sounds a wee bit creepy to me.

So, how does it work? What’s the difference? And why does it even matter?

As it turns out, the difference between being jealous and being envious is quite significant, and extends beyond a mere grammatical oddity into the realm of… wait for it… morality itself.

Don’t believe me? Let’s take a look.


“You can’t fix yourself by breaking someone else.” – Unknown

Envy is an emotion that is based entirely on greed, and it involves someone wishing for something—or resenting something—that he or she does not have. Envy is reaching, covetous, and wants that which it currently has no right to. (This last fact is important, so keep it in mind.)


“People protect what they love.” – Jacques Yves Cousteau

Jealousy, on the other hand, is an emotion that is most often based on love, affection and appreciation. It involves someone wishing to defend and preserve something he or she already has. Jealousy is protective, conserving, and wants to keep from losing something which it already has the full rights to.

In Language

That’s really all you need to know whether something is jealousy or envy. Did you catch the trick to it?

Here it is again: whether or not someone has the right to something determines whether what they’re feeling is envy or jealousy. You can only ever be jealous of something that is already yours, and you can only ever be envious of something that is not already yours. Simple as that.

The problem, of course, is that the common usage of these two words have become so mixed up that jealousy has come to be used for both meanings, and that is a real shame. On the upside: you, dear reader, now know better, and will never fall into this trap again!

But I said something about morality earlier, didn’t I? Can it really be such a significant distinction? Let’s take a quick look, and you can decide for yourself.

For Extra Credit: A Dip Into The Morality Pool

Another major difference between these two emotions is that jealousy, in moderation, can be a very good thing. Parents guard their children’s safety jealously. A fitness nut will be jealous of his gym time. And writers, of course, often need to guard their writing time jealously as well. It should be evident that these are Good Things. They come from love for the children, love of good health, love of writing.

Envy, however, because it is based on greed, is seen as bad no matter how little of it may crop up at a time. In our modern understanding of morality, there is no amount of envy that can be deemed good. It is just always bad.

Does this mean that jealousy can never be a bad thing? Of course not! We all know the “jealous boyfriend/girlfriend” archetype, and it is well-named. The jealous partner does have a claim to the time and attention of his or her mate, so the right word is, in fact, jealousy. The problem is that the jealous type takes that claim too far, until it becomes all-consuming. But note that the jealousy itself typically isn’t the problem here—most people like to see at least a little jealousy from their mates, and seeing it makes people feel desired and loved. Like with pretty much anything else in life, the real problem here is taking something to the extreme.

There you have it, plain and simple. So authors: the next time you are tempted to describe a character’s behaviour as jealous, just give a moment’s thought and make sure you don’t perhaps mean the other one. Your editor will thank you for it!