The Meaning of Green With Envy

Green with envy was a colorful term used long before Mark Twain wrote these words about envy in the late-1800s. Today, the saying means that one is envious or covetous of someone or something.

It turned Brer Merlin green with envy and spite, which was a great satisfaction to me.

A Connecticut Yankee by Mark Twain

If one is “bitten by the green-eyed monster,” it’s thought they are consumed with envy. With envy being one of the deadly sins, there’s been a lot written about it since the beginning of time.

Color Me ‘Green with Envy’

If you go back a few hundred years to the 16th and 17th centuries, great authors such as Shakespeare and Chaucer wrote of characters who were green with envy.

Shakespeare uses green to describe both envy and jealousy at least three times in his works. In Othello, Iago refers to the ‘green-eyed monster.’ In Anthony and Cleopatra, Shakespeare wrote of the ‘green sickness,’ meaning envy. And in Merchant of Venice, he used the term ‘green-eyed jealousy.’

Many credit Shakespeare with inventing the idea of green with envy but a Greek beat him by 2,000 years.

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Early Green Usage

Long before Shakespeare connected green with envy and jealousy, the color was more commonly used to describe illness. Sources such as Who Put the Butter in Butterfly by David Feldman claim the early Greeks interchanged “green” and “pale” to mean sickly. The Greeks thought that when you were ill, the body produced too much bile, giving the skin a green tint.

And while many sources are content to let Shakespeare take credit for inventing the idea of a person turning green with envy, a Greek poet beat him to the punch more than 2,000 years earlier. Sappho wrote of a forlorn lover being green in one of her works dating back to the seventh century B.C.E.

Envious Cats?

So how does “green with envy” turn into the ‘green-eyed monster’? Several sources suggest that Shakespeare, who is credited with creating this phrase, was comparing an envious man to a green-eyed cat that toys with its prey before killing it:

O! Beware, my lord, of jealousy; it is the green-eyed monster which doth mock the meat it feeds on.

Othello

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Read Time: 3 min
  • Joe M says:

    You should take out the word “jealousy”. Because envy is not jealousy. Envy is about something you want that you don’t have. Jealousy is about the threat losing or hurting something you already have. Big difference. Not related.

    • Kate Smith says:

      Thanks for taking the time to leave a comment. I agree that envy and jealousy are two different ideas. However, throughout history, both envy and jealousy have been closely related to the color green and are now often used interchangeably even though they technically are not synonymous. As Merriam-Webster says,

      “Both words are fairly old, having been in regular use in English since the 13th century, and both words have accrued a number of shades of meaning over the years. The fact that each of these words has numerous meanings makes it somewhat impractical to say “jealous means X, and envious means Y.” But this matter of impracticality has proven to be little deterrent to many people who have insisted that each one of these words does indeed have a single true sense…There are indeed some semantic distinctions that may be made between these words, but it should also be noted that many educated people use them interchangeably.” https://www.merriam-webster.com/words-at-play/jealous-vs-envious

      While like you, I prefer precision in language, I have found that in terms related to color, it is most practical and easy for people to understand If I write and speak using the definitions most widely used in everyday language. I have included jealousy when talking about “green-eyed monster” because that is how people most often use the phrase and used envy when talking about “green with envy.”

  • Vani says:

    Green is really a color that I don’t use quite enough and good to know that green is the color of jealousy. I was not aware of it.

  • KHOKHA says:

    Great post. Thanks.

    • Kate Smith says:

      You’re welcome, Khoka. Thanks for taking the time to leave a nice comment.

  • Lizzy Hill says:

    *Hello. Please cld you tell me can you use ‘green’ on its own, as an adjective/ noun to describe a person who’s jealous? Or does it have to be part of the idioms, green w envy and green-eyed monster? Funnily enough, the few online definitions of green I’ve seen, don’t seem to include green itself as meaning envious, so that’s why I ask. Thank. You:-)

    • Kate Smith says:

      The word green used alone more commonly means inexperienced but I have also seen it used to mean someone who is jealous.

  • Kathy M. says:

    Green is such an amazing color, it works just about everywhere. The only thing that is contradicting for me is that I don’t like the primary color green. I really like the unique colors of green that show up.

    • Kate Smith says:

      With so many gorgeous greens to choose from, no need to use true green. 🙂

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