Mike Kueber's Blog

April 26, 2012

Bryan Garner’s usage – jealousy vs. envy

Filed under: Culture,Education,Trivia — Mike Kueber @ 11:51 pm

Last Tuesday evening, I was sitting on a patio with friends, discussing the issues of the day while enjoying some libations.  One of my friends said something about being jealous and the words weren’t even out of his mouth before my other friend suggested that the appropriate word is “envious,” not “jealous.” 

See, my punctilious friend had the distinction between jealous and envious branded on his brain by a similarly punctilious high school teacher more than 40 years ago.  According to this teacher, many people not only confuse the two words, but they also overuse jealous because envious is a bit highfalutin for them.  Thus, whenever you hear the word jealous, there is strong likelihood that the speaker should have said envious.    

What is the difference between jealous and envious?  According to Merriam-Webster, jealous means to be intolerant of rivalry or unfaithfulness.  That definition is essentially what my friend was taught more than 40 years ago – i.e., it meant a fear that someone was stealing the affection from another person that you want. 

By contrast, Merriam-Webster defines envious as resenting the advantage possessed by another.  My friend was taught that it means wanting what someone else has, except as applied to the affections of a third person.

A dictionary often is all that is needed to determine what word best communicates what you are thinking.  For years, I have kept one dictionary alongside my reading chair and another alongside my bed.  Lately, however, I get more enjoyment out of referring to usage manuals, which provide in-depth discussions of term(s), much of which is based on tradition or custom.

What do usage manuals say about jealous and envy?  One of my favorite usage manuals is Bryan Garner’s A Dictionary of Modern American Usage.  Garner has taught several seminars that I have attended, and I enjoy him immensely.  (In fact, he edited the most recent Black’s Law Dictionary and allowed me to submit comments on about 10-15 pages of words; I believe he even credited me in the Acknowledgement.)

According to A Dictionary of Modern American Usage:

  • “jealousy; envy.  The careful writer distinguishes between these terms.  Jealousy is properly restricted to contexts involving affairs of the heart; envy is used more broadly of resentful contemplation of a more fortunate person.” 

Doesn’t that hit the spot?!

Garner’s first usage manual was titled A Dictionary of Modern Legal Usage, and it is what turned me on to Garner.  Each entry in the book is so polished that it seems a talented person spent hours on it, although that was obviously impossible.  Because of its narrower focus (the law), it is not as useful to non-lawyers.  In looking at my copy today, I noticed that Bryan inscribed it, “For Michael A. Kueber, May you always find just the right words.  Bryan Garner.”  A beautiful thought, and I have to remind myself that he didn’t actually create the expression for me. 

Just today, I sent an email to a friend who had described the stress and frustration in preparing for a complicated litigation.  Although I am generally familiar with the distinction between empathize and sympathize, I wasn’t certain which was more appropriate, so I used both – empathize/sympathize.  If I’d checked with Garner first, he would have told me, “Empathy is the ability to imagine oneself in another’s position and to experience all the sensations connected with it.  Sympathy is compassion for or commiseration with.”  That is consistent with my general understanding, but technically I probably shouldn’t have said “empathize” because I haven’t taken a chair in litigation in over 30 years and my other similar experiences probably don’t compare close enough to be able to fully empathize.    

My all-time favorite usage issue is infer vs. imply.  Like my friend with jealous and envious, whenever I hear either infer or imply, my usage antenna goes up and I immediately analyze to determine whether the usage was correct.

Of course, many of us have a shared experience regarding our first lesson on usage, and Garner tells a funny story about it in the Preface to A Dictionary of Modern American Usage:

  • Not long ago, while I was standing at a rental-car counter in Austin, a young clerk told me that a free upgrade to a Cadillac might be available.  She would have to see whether any Cadillacs were on the lot just then.  Two minutes passed as she typed, got on the phone, twirled her hair around her index finger, and then typed some more.  Finally I said, “Can I get the upgrade?”  “You mean, ‘May I get the upgrade,’ she responded.  As it happens, I had been working on the manuscript of this book only minutes before, so I couldn’t help thinking how surreal the experience was.  I felt a twinge of indignation on the one hand – the kind that anyone feels when corrected.  But I also thought that her remark was charming in a way.  She was doing her best to uphold good English.  But she was wrong and I gently told her so: “I’m not asking for your permission.  I want to know whether you have a Cadillac on the lot.  I want to know whether it’s physically possible for me to drive one of them.  So: ‘Can I get the upgrade.’”

Do you remember asking your teacher whether you can go to the bathroom?  And she would invariably respond that she doesn’t know whether you can go, but that you may go, if you want.

If you ever have a chance to look at some of the entries in Garner’s books, I encourage you to do so.


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