“Well you see, Tater the Goat, when you don’t want to let anybody near your favorite patch of grass, the word for that is...”
Photo: AP Photo

Okay. Okay. So. An ugly and kind of dumb but real thing that sometimes happens in the life of a more-or-less normal person is, you had the idea that you and your longtime pal Hubert were meeting up for Special Pal Beers together, like in old times, just the two old pals, but then you find out that your old pal also invited Cornelius from work along for what you’d thought were Special Pal Beers, and you feel kind of shitty and mad about it, and you find yourself having a crappy attitude toward Cornelius’s jokes and just wishing he would go the fuck away. You feel insecure and paranoid, like maybe you and your old pal Hubert are at risk of not even being Special Pal Beer Pals anymore, but rather just Acquaintances, because Cornelius has come along to steal away your Special Pal Beer Pal status. And if you’re being honest you kind of hate Cornelius even though you know he didn’t do anything wrong and is just a nice and friendly guy who shares interests and a sensibility and a professional context with your old pal Hubert.

There’s a good word for this fearful, possessive, clinging feeling, the feeling of hunching defensively over something you feel belongs to you, the urge to lash out at anyone who might also want it and chase them away. That word is jealousy. You are a jealous friend. You are a bit jealous in your friendship with Hubert. You guard it jealously.

And then there’s this whole other ugly and dumb thing that sometimes happens, where you were feeling okay about your life until you saw that Buford next door has six-pack abs and an extremely fucking cool pair of sunglasses, and now you wish to hell that you also had six-pack abs and an extremely fucking cool pair of sunglasses, and your own life and its modest but real accomplishments and virtues seem like complete diaper shit without six-pack abs and an extremely fucking cool pair of sunglasses. And you kind of hate Buford—for having these things that you want, and for having the ability to have those things, for being anointed by God with the grace to possess those things, the son of a bitch, what an asshole, fuck him.

There’s a word for this miserable, twisted-up feeling, of being a hater, of desiring what someone else has and despising them because they have it and you don’t. That word also is jealousy. You hate Buford because you are jealous of his six-pack abs.

In fact, when you hear the word jealousy (or jealous) nowadays, you almost always are hearing it used to describe this second thing. Broke bums who criticize someone rich and famous and good looking are just jealous. Filled with bile and resentment because Beverly got yet another promotion while you’re still sitting here putting the finishing touches on Year 4 in the same damn job? You are brimming with jealousy.

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But, see, jealousy also describes that first thing, which is a very different thing from that second thing. A whole different and in some ways sharply contrasting thing! The first thing is a paranoid, proprietary defensiveness; the second thing is a resentful longing for what someone else has. One is a rancid fear, the other a curdled desire. More importantly, there are no other good words for the first thing. (Possessiveness comes close, but it’s clunky and overlong and has too many s’s; plus it’s not even a real noun, just an adjective clumsily jerry-rigged into a noun with that ugly stapled-on derivational suffix. I don’t like it! It’s a weak word.)

Luckily, the second thing—that bitter feeling toward someone else for having what you desperately want—has its own damn word, and it fits the feeling even better than jealousy. That word is envy. It’s perfect. It only means the one thing and not the other thing, and also it’s a syllable shorter. It’s the word equivalent of a primary color: Only itself, not the subsidiary of some other thing. It’s not some big box store of a word with multiple departments of meaning. One word for one thing. It even sounds good, with that smooth n-to-v action. Envy. Ennnnnnnnnvy. A good word, with one clear meaning. And jealousy, that bastard, is taking away what belongs to it!

I care about this because I am a maniac. Truly. Just a fucking miserable, obsessive, pedantic, shit-for-brains maniac. Howling and barking. But that doesn’t mean I am wrong here, dammit.

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It’s good to have one word for each one specific thing and one thing for each one specific word; it’s good to have lots and lots of unique words describing similar but subtly different things; it’s good to know and embrace and guard the difference between convince and persuade and to insist there is or can be a meaningful difference between the things described by animosity and acrimony. It’s good to resent the thesaurus and love the dictionary. It’s good for language to grow, mostly, to grow endlessly and relentlessly and vainly and hopelessly toward the insane, unattainable goal of describing worlds both interior and exterior in perfect resolution, of transferring with absolutely zero data loss a packet of individual, personal experience from my brain to yours via words and words only. Where there are two words that mean the same thing, it’s good to pry them apart so that they mean two different things, even if the difference is only what they reveal about the person choosing one word and not the other to describe what they both describe. And it’s good to be a complete fucking psycho who cares about all of this stuff, “doctor”!

What I am saying here is, please use envy to describe how you feel about my impressive muscles. Thank you.