The Grammarphobia Blog

Our changing language

Q: When do we stop correcting everyone around us and acknowledge that language has evolved? For instance the lovely distinction between “jealous” and “envious” has been so thoroughly blurred that it’s widely lost. At what point do we throw in the towel?

A: This is a complicated question. It’s a myth that English has been formal up until now and has suddenly become casual. English has always been in transition and always will be.

As the inevitable shifts in usage occur, there’s going to be a certain amount of  hand-wringing on the part of those who think English should remain frozen in time—their time!

One concrete thing you can do is keep your dictionary up to date. Lexicographers always have their ears to the ground. It’s the words that are out there, in common usage, that make it into dictionaries in the first place.

A dictionary entry in effect tells people that this is a word people use, this is how they spell it, this is how they pronounce it, and this is what they mean by it.

Inevitably, its meaning, its spelling, its pronunciation will change over time in common usage.

And as these things change, so does a word’s entry in the dictionary. This is why dictionaries of only fifty years ago are very different from those of today.

We wrote a blog posting last year about how words can change their stripes over the centuries.

As for “jealous” and “envious,” you may be surprised at how much these two words have evolved over the years.

The adjective “jealous,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary, has meant wrathful, furious, devoted, eager, amorous, lustful, zealous, and so on, though many of these senses are now obsolete.

The word is ultimately derived from zelus, Latin for zeal.

The Chambers Dictionary of Etymology says “jealous” apparently entered English sometime before 1200, and originally meant “distrustful of the faithfulness of a spouse or lover.”

The earliest citation in the OED is from The Owl and the Nightingale, a Middle English poem from the 12th or 13th century: “He was so gelus of his wive.”

It wasn’t until a couple of centuries later, according to citations in the OED, that people began being “jealous” of their rivals (or imagined rivals) in love.

Here’s an early citation from The Book of the Knight of La Tour-Landry, a mid-15th century translation of a French etiquette guide for young women: “She loued hym so moche that she was ielous ouer alle women that he spake with.”

The adjective “envious” has meant “vexed or discontented at the good fortune or qualities of another” since it entered English around 1300.

But over the centuries it has also meant malicious, spiteful, grudging, stingy, and odious, though most of those senses are now obsolete.

Why all those nasty meanings? Perhaps because the word ultimately comes from the Latin invidere, to look with ill will upon or cast an evil eye on someone.

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