I usually enjoy Michelle Berdy’s Moscow Times columns on various features of the Russian language; the latest, “Paronymic Problems,” is about what she calls “confusingly similar words, like sensual and sensuous.” Her first example is straightforward (and not something I was ever confused by): “Абонемент [abonement] is a season ticket, a subscription; абонент [abonent] is the subscriber.” Then she plunges into deeper waters:
Желанный [zhelannyi] / желательный [zhelatel'nyi] can also throw you. Желанный is something you are aiming for, желательный is what you would like to see happen, the preferred outcome. Sometimes these are synonyms—what you are aiming for is what you prefer to get—but sometimes they are not. However, you can see the subtle distinction in the following sentence (which is a bit of a linguistic stretch, for illustration purposes): Дима—желательный кандидат, но Саша—наш желанный кандидат [Dima—zhelatel'nyi kandidat, no Sasha—nash zhelannyi kandidat] (Dima is a preferred candidate, but Sasha is the candidate we want).
Got that? Well, I don’t. It doesn’t make sense on its own terms (if zhelannyi is ‘something you are aiming for’ as opposed to ‘what you would like to see happen,’ then why is Sasha “the candidate we want”?), nor does it fit with my understanding of zhelannyi, which is more like ‘longed for, desired’ than merely ‘aimed for.’ (When I do a Yandex search, the first result that comes up is Желанный ребенок [zhelannyi rebyonok] ‘a wanted baby,’ one that you really want to have; “aimed-for” seems pretty pale.) I understand the pressures of deadline, but it seems to me she should have either taken the time to figure out what to say or chosen a different example. (Via Mildly Malevolent.)
Um, needless to say, I’m willing to be corrected by those with better understanding of Russian than I can lay claim to.