X v Y: Sarcasm and jealousy: the darker sides of irony and envy (and the irony of Aristotle)


Glosso’s series, “X v Y”, takes a look at two sets of words — envy and jealousy, irony and sarcasm — that are often treated as synonyms but actually have substantially different meanings.

In last night’s production of Giulio Cesare at the Metour hero — after singing of his love for Lydia-aka-Cleopatra and then finding her vanished — declared that the Gods must have been “jealous of his happiness” to have so whisked her away from him. Was it indeed jealousy of which Caesar spoke, or was the Italian librettist really talking of envy?

There are two sets of near synonyms that have something interesting in common: one of each of the word-pairs has a slightly darker meaning than its twin, even though the nouns can often be used interchangeably. Envy and jealousy, irony and sarcasm: in each case, the second word is more malign, with negative thoughts directed towards another implicit in its meaning, whereas the first doesn’t necessarily or always have a malevolent agenda.

Envy and jealousy are difficult to distinguish eloquently: there is sufficient overlap to make discrete and separate definitions hard to pin down. The OED defines envy as “a feeling of discontented or resentful longing aroused by another’s better fortune etc.” Jealousy, on the other hand, means the state of being “afraid, suspicious, or resentful of rivalry in love or affection; envious or resentful (of a person or a person’s advantages etc.).”

We are envious of what another person has that we ourselves don’t or can’t have. The emphasis is on our own deficit, or on the coveted object or experience that we lack. I am envious of my neighbor’s green lawn: I wish my turf were as watered and lush. I might even feel a dash of hostility towards my green-fingered friend across the fence, but the real focus of my envy is centered on something I wish I had rather than on the person who has it. A piece in yesterday’s Guardian discussed a remarkable observation that amongst those of means, relative wealth is valued more highly than absolute wealth: i.e. rich people are motivated to seek greater wealth simply to be better off than others. As the author of the article, George Monbiot, remarked: “The politics of envy are never keener than among the very rich.” Envy can be found in something as banal as another’s nice haircut, but that’s not to say that envy can’t be laden with pain or bitterness at its extreme.

Jealousy is an emotion that needs a human rival to feel its full force: inherent in my jealousy of another is the fear that they – through their own advantage or good fortune – will steal what I already have, or that they will succeed where I have failed in taking someone or something that is rightfully mine. Romantic or sexual love is a usual ingredient of jealousy, and feeling the full impact of another’s gain with one’s own loss is at the crux of this bitter sentiment. Where envy at its extreme can be painful and self-tormenting, jealousy at its worst is hateful and sometimes lethal.*

Aristotle seems to disagree with me: he argued that “jealousy is both reasonable and belongs to reasonable men, while envy is base and belongs to the base, for the one makes himself get good things by jealousy, while the other does not allow his neighbour to have them through envy.” It makes me wonder whether the words have changed in meaning over the centuries, or whether Aristotle was in fact being ironic …

The difference between irony and sarcasm is similarly founded in the implicit malevolence of just one of the definitions.

According to the OED, irony — as in the case of someone being ironic, rather than the description of a given situation — is “the expression of meaning through the use of words that normally mean the opposite, typically in order to be humorous or emphasize a point.” Sarcasm it defines as “the use of bitter or wounding, esp. ironic, remarks.” In other words, sarcasm is just one form of irony. The Oxford American Dictionary clarifies the distinction further, calling sarcasm “a way of using words that say the opposite of what one means, in order to mock someone.”

I’ve noticed that the distinction between these two words is curiously more often blurred in American English than in Brit-speak — and this actually doesn’t come as a great surprise to me. In an earlier Glossophilia post about “taking the piss” and “taking the mick(ey)”, I made my own observation that Americans don’t really have an equivalent expression for this particularly British sport — making fun of others — because they don’t tend to indulge in that behavior, at least not to the same extent as their English counterparts. Similarly, sarcasm in its true sense is something you will find in healthy widespread use throughout the UK — but not as much on American shores. Here it’s more of a foreign concept, and therefore more likely to be confused or at least used synonymously with its more innocent word-twin. Many Americans profess to love sarcasm when I suspect they are really thinking of irony, simply because they haven’t born the brunt of the best-of-British in all its glory, and therefore aren’t as conscious of its distinctively spiteful nature …

* * * * *


This rose-tree is not made to bear
The violet blue, nor lily fair,
Nor the sweet mignionet:
And if this tree were discontent,
Or wished to change its natural bent,
It all in vain would fret.
And should it fret, you would suppose
It ne’er had seen its own red rose,
Nor after gentle shower
Had ever smelled its rose’s scent,
Or it could ne’er be discontent
With its own pretty flower.
Like such a blind and senseless tree
As I’ve imagined this to be,
All envious persons are:
With care and culture all may find
Some pretty flower in their own mind,
Some talent that is rare.
— Mary Lamb


“Irony is the gaity of reflection and the joy of wisdom.”
— Anatole France

“A taste for irony has kept more hearts from breaking than a sense of humor, for it takes irony to appreciate the joke which is on oneself.
— Jessamyn West

“Sarcasm: the last refuge of modest and chaste-souled people when the privacy of their soul is coarsely and intrusively invaded.”
— Fyodor Dostoyevsky


* Since posting, I’ve discovered this interesting article in Psychology Today from 1994, which states that “Jealousy exposes fear of loss; envy hinges on feeling inferior.”

First posted in May 2013.

2 thoughts on “X v Y: Sarcasm and jealousy: the darker sides of irony and envy (and the irony of Aristotle)

  1. Jeff Spurgeon

    It’s good that you gave Dostoyevsky the last word; his thoughts go deepest here, at least to me.
    I think the easiest way to think of the difference between envy and jealousy involves an exclusive relationship. I may envy someone else’s green lawn, but if I get a green lawn it won’t take away the other guy’s patch of turf; I’ll simply have one, too — and then my envy will disappear (or be transferred to something else). But jealousy is wanting something or someone that I cannot have if someone else has it/her/him. Envy says, “I want a lawn/wife just like his.”
    Jealousy says, “That lawn/wife he has should be mine, not his.”
    Envy is uncomfortable, but jealousy is terrifying; and what crime and heartbreak it breeds.
    And where does covetousness fit into this theme? The Bible warns against coveting anything belonging to your neighbor. That sounds like jealousy more than envy to me, but perhaps there are other nuances I miss.
    The culture of irony is so pervasive in the U.S. now that I think clear, straightforward communication is hard to both give and receive. I base that assertion on advertising, which seems to me to employ more irony than ever. But perhaps it is a kind of irony out of my own experience, so there just seems to be more of it; maybe there’s simply more irony I don’t understand.
    My own sarcastic temperament has caused me enough grief, but I think I’d have to work hard to match the British at it. And that skill at reducing people to shreds with words is not a skill I envy at all.

    1. Louise Post author

      That’s a great way of capturing the envy/jealousy thing in a nutshell: exclusivity. That really does get to the heart of it. But what do you think about Aristotle’s rather strange remark?

      The Brits are such masters of irony – and sarcasm – that I think most of their victims are blissfully unaware that they’re even targets of it. I really don’t encounter much true sarcasm here in the US — even here in NYC. American irony is fun but rarely cutting.

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