Eye of the storm: finding words to explain intense emotional experiences such as jealousy isn't easy, precise or definitive / Alamy

Why do we find jealousy so painful to admit to? And is envy really a more deadly sin? In this extract from his new book, Peter Toohey explores the meaning and history of the green-eyed monster

What is jealousy? A painting by the Swedish playwright August Strindberg, Night of Jealousy, (1893) offers one kind of answer. On first glance it is an impenetrable blur of darks, greys and whites. It’s all raging seas, slashing rain and thunder clouds – an analogy, you could say, for someone in the midst of a jealous rage.

Many who have been badly jealous might instantly believe that, yes, that’s how it really feels. Strindberg has the turbulence, anxiety and pain down cold. But couldn’t this abstract evocation of jealousy do duty for just about any strong feeling? Grief, anger, depression or desperation could all be easily ascribed to it. What the painting conveys to me, then, is the difficulty involved in trying to represent an emotion like jealousy. If it weren’t for the title, and Strindberg’s note on the back of it to his soon-to-be-wife – ‘To Miss Frida Uhl from the artist (the Symbolist August Strindberg); the painting depicts the sea (bottom right), Clouds (top), a Juniper bush (top left) and symbolizes: a Night of Jealousy’ – I doubt that anyone would have a clue as to what he’s getting at.

But using words to explain emotional experiences isn’t easy, precise or definitive either. It’s difficult to know what you’re feeling and to name it. But more than that, feeling an emotion precedes our ability to speak about it. Small children can feel emotions long before they are able to say what they are. Emotions are not dependent for their existence on a person’s capacity to nominate them, let alone to understand them. Some aspects of our experience of emotions will always evade descriptions.

And language is a very imprecise mechanism for communicating our inner states to others: how often have you heard: “What do you mean?” Jealousy, though, is especially difficult to talk about. First, because it is a very slippery word. The term “jealousy” has no cast-iron status in terms of what it designates. If you were to translate Deuteronomy 5:9 – “for I the Lord thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me” – into today’s English, the word jealous mightn’t appear at all; something like “demanding” could be used instead. “Demanding”, as well as “possessive”, “covetous”, “begrudging”, “emulous” and “invidious”, as well as “hater”, “green” and “well jel”, all make a claim.

Jealous guys: ‘The Judgement of Paris’ is based on jealousy and envy (Alamy)

The enthusiastic use of “well jel” by many British youngsters, especially since it was popularised by the TV programme The Only Way Is Essex, points to one of the commonest ways that the word jealousy is used – incorrectly, in the eyes of many. Check Twitter and you’ll see what I mean. Users across the globe apply the meme and hashtag #welljel constantly – my cursory glance suggested that it was around once every 10 minutes. At the time I was writing this paragraph (when the northern hemisphere’s summer months were approaching), “well jel” was applied to upcoming holidays in the sun (“have fun on that boat! Well jel!”), followed closely by unusual, exciting, and for this writer impenetrable, experiences (“Well jel me. That’s when Lionel Ritchie was at his best”), or items of clothing (“you have so much swag, I am well jel”), or appearance (“Has some serious cheekbone envy after watching Angelina Jolie in Maleficent!!! #welljel”). Are they really talking about jealousy? My point is that all this jealousy would more likely be termed envy.

Envy, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is: “A feeling of discontented or resentful longing aroused by someone else’s possessions, qualities, or luck.” The verb means: “Desire to have a quality, possession, or other desirable thing belonging to (someone else)”. Jealousy is more commonly associated with sex (your heart’s desire is cheating on you), personal relationships, and protecting your possessions or rights. As Peter van Sommers, author of the 1988 book Jealousy outlines: “Envy concerns what you would like to have but don’t possess, whereas jealousy concerns what you have and do not wish to lose.”

Envy is classically thought of as being dyadic (you and the thing), whereas jealousy is triadic (you, the thing or person, and the rival who threatens to take them from you). Look back at those tweets’ focus on commodities, good looks and good luck. It is, in the widely accepted understanding, envy, isn’t it? So why are these people not “well env”?

Envy and jealousy have a long history of trading places. Between the late 14-century Wycliffe Bible and the 1611 King James version, lines from the Song of Solomon 8:6 transformed from the breathtaking “loue is strong / As deth, enuy is hard / As helle”, into “love is strong / As death, jealousy is cruel / As the grave”. Both versions agree on the force of their chosen word, whether it’s “envy” or “jealousy”, and there is no difficulty for the reader of either version in understanding the meaning. The Latin in the Vulgate’s version of this passage is aemulatio, cognate with “emulous” in English, and it can mean “jealous” or “envious”. The Latin invidia also translates as either term.

Invidia, and the oscillation between envy and jealousy, is at the heart of ancient Roman retellings of the Judgement of Paris, one of the most famous tales from Greek mythology. The story tells how Zeus arranged a marriage banquet and, wanting to keep the party calm, did not invite the goddess Strife. Snubbed, Strife came anyway and brought trouble with her: a golden apple on which was inscribed “For the most beautiful woman”. She threw the apple into the midst of the celebration. Hera, wife of Zeus, Athena, daughter of Zeus, and Aphrodite, the goddess of love, all insisted that the apple was addressing them personally. Zeus appointed Paris, the son of Priam, king of Troy, to arbitrate. The goddesses each tried to bribe him: Hera promised him the realms of Europe and Asia, Athena promised him wisdom and ability in battle, and Aphrodite promised him Helen, the most beautiful woman in the world. Aphrodite triumphed. The louche Paris abducted Helen from her husband, Menelaus, and slipped back to Troy. Menelaus gathered a huge Greek force to get her back, resolutely supported by Hera and Athena. So, while jealousy started the Trojan War, it seems to have been something more like envy that really kicked it all off: it’s Strife’s envy of the other gods’ jollity that leads her to gatecrash the party, and the three goddesses’ envy of one another’s beauty that makes them so competitive. Envy and jealousy are both part of the same picture and seem very hard to separate. Little wonder the Twittersphere is discombobulated.

Strindberg's 'Night of Jealousy' (Alamy)

Talking about jealousy is difficult for another reason: the stigma. Many people are deeply reluctant to admit to feeling it strongly. Pride and shame make people instinctively self-censor. Confessing your jealousy could be taken as a sign of weakness or be disapproved of by others. Vicious jealousy is suppressed, pre-empted or transmuted into more acceptable emotions when it is described. So if the jealous person cannot admit his jealousy directly, and is always seeking other names for it, it follows that it’s an emotion that lends itself to metaphor.

The linguist Anna Ogarkova has explored the various metaphorical uses of jealousy and envy in modern English and shows that they are distinguished only by intensity. Jealousy attracts the more powerful and violent linguistic associations. Jealousy is often thought to be the more powerful emotion of the two. One doesn’t say “I’m jealous of your success” without putting the listener on guard. But by recasting the thought and saying, “How I envy you!” the switch rids the admission of its tacit tenor of poisonous rivalry. It assumes a tone of wry admiration. For the Norwegian philosopher Jon Elster, however, envy is the more powerful and the more repressed of the two emotions. This is because the person envied may be entirely innocent, as well as oblivious. Elster thinks that envy is unique, “because it is the only emotion we do not want to admit to others or to ourselves”.

Elster argues that, despite the huge variances in moral principles and social norms across time and space, in no society would an individual consciously confess to envy in its pure, Aristotelian form: “hostility towards the nondeserved fortune of another, and justify[ing] aggressive or destructive behavior in terms of this emotion”. Really? In Shakepeare’s Othello, Iago’s confession of his envy, when he says that Cassio “hath a daily beauty in his life / That makes me ugly”, surely tests Elster’s argument. Again, it goes to show how confusing jealousy and envy can be, and how weighed down they are with perplexing moral subtexts. The idea that jealousy is a weakness has deep roots in Western history. “Thou shalt not covet” was carved on the two stone tablets by the finger of God. And listen to St Paul in Galatians 5:19–21: “the works of the flesh are evident ... hatred, contentions, jealousies ... those who practise such things will not inherit the kingdom of God”. Christianity has laid down a judgement of jealousy that has had a very long life.

I suspect that it’s this religious tradition that’s behind the austere renunciation of the emotion in Havelock Ellis’s Studies in the Psychology of Sex. In his opinion, civilised people have moved or should have moved beyond jealousy: “If jealousy has been a beneficial influence at the beginning of civilisation, as well as among animals... it is still by no means clear that it... becomes a desirable emotion in more advanced stages of civilisation.” Others deride it too. For the French philosopher Alain Badiou, “jealousy is a fake parasite that feeds on love”. I guess that he is not necessarily immune, but he doesn’t think much of the emotion.

More suffer an odd aphasia about their own feelings and conduct. Not long after suffocating Desdemona, Othello describes himself as a man “not easily jealous”. James Joyce’s modernist masterpiece Ulysses is a novel about Leopold Bloom’s day spent desperately avoiding thoughts of his wife Molly and her affair – refusing to admit his jealousy, even to himself. Joyce knew a thing or two about the emotion: he wrote a number of jealous letters to Nora Barnacle after discovering that she was carrying on with another man early on in their relationship. Nonetheless, Joyce claimed that men did not feel jealousy, but merely an offended sense of proprietorship.

This is not simply a problem for literature: the inability and the reluctance to name jealousy bedevils the many psychological studies on it that rely on self-reporting or self-rating. And these are the studies that still form the basis of many investigations into the emotion. After all, despite being in such good company, who would willingly admit to succumbing to the green-eyed monster?

‘Jealousy’ by Peter Toohey, (Yale, £16.99),  is out now