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.


  1. You have a better understanding of Russian than myself, but could it be a difference in the semantic actor of the wanting? (Um, or however one would express that idea.) I don’t know how, or if, that’s marked in Russian, but coming off an exercise that reminded me of how one has to be careful with desiderative endings in Japanese, it was just what came to mind. In which case, the “preferred outcome” might be what’s objectively preferable, or what the society as a whole might want…. But we’re still going for Sasha anyway.
    Which just reminds me of our Maa informant in field methods and how we’d reduce her to perplexed laughter by asking, very seriously, things like “Well, assuming that there were a bunch of gourds and you were to see them rolling towards school, would you use this verb to describe their motion?”

  2. This is how I see it. Zhelannyj is usually, though not always, modifies persons, and means “desired, longed for” as Steve mentioned. Combined with inanimates, zhelannyj sounds lyrical, and the meaning “desired” has a certain negative epistemic stance to it – something of the “unobtainable” nature. “Zhelatelnyj” is more often found with inanimates, and can be translated as “optimal, preferred” – so “zhelatelnyj opyt raboty” (preferred work experience), “zhelatel’nyj rost” (optimal height), etc. I would probably not say, “zhelatel’nyj kandidat”, and I would definitely not say “zhelannyj kandidat” unless romantic feeling was involved. Google shows as little as 89 hits for zhelatel’nyj kandidat, and only 8 for zhelannyj kandidat, and most of them seem sarcastic.

  3. Thanks, Renee, that’s what I thought!
    kristine, you’ve given me my first good laugh of the day, and I will think of those inexorably rolling gourds as I confront the trials awaiting me at work.

  4. I know nothing of Russian, and this is off topic and a small thing besides, but I am struck that Абонемент is akin to the French abonnement, which means subscription. Loan word? I know there are plenty of other French –> Russian loaners…

  5. Steve,
    “Zhelannyj” in most contexts would be either archaic, or poetic, or both. It manages to lose this connotation only in a few set phrases, such as “zhelannyj gost'”, for instance. “Zhelatel’nyj” is completely modern, and means “preferred, desired”.
    “Zhelannyj”, with its romantic aura, hints at something desired by the soul; “zhelatel’nyj” – by the voice of reason. Thus if you contrast Dima the “zhelatel’nyj kandidat” with Sasha the “zhelannyj kandidat”, the meaning is simply that we realize we’d be better off with Dima, though it’s Sasha who’s “our guy”, who we’d really love to see elected. Note, however, that the sharp distinction only arises because the sentence forces us to antagonize the two descriptions. “Zhelannyj kandidat” sounds somewhat unnatural; if someone does use this phrase, it would probably be employed either for sarcasm, or in order to achieve the same meaning as “zhelatel’nyj kandidat”, but with a lyrical touch to it.

  6. Grant: Yes, it’s one of those loan words (high culture from French, ship terms from Dutch).
    Anatoly: Thanks!

  7. I suspect the immediate sources of абонент and абонемент were the German words, Abonnent (subscriber) and Abonnement (subscription), from abonnieren (to subscribe, hence абонировать), which, in its turn, may be a French loan (abonner).

  8. Hmm… you may be right. But Vasmer says abonement, “prostorechn. abonent,” is from French abonnement, and he’s usually pretty good about disentangling intermediate source languages. Did abonent start out as a colloquial form of the longer word and then get specialized, or is Vasmer full of it? If only there were a Russian OED… There are, of course, dictionaries that would help sort this out, but I don’t have access to them at the moment.

  9. To call абонент a colloquial form of абонемент is a bit risky; I’d say it’s a gross and confusing distortion of the original word. Vasmer is of course the ultimate authority on that, so I’ll admit that абонемент comes straight from French, but абонент, even though one Russian dictionary derives it from abonner, is more likely a German loan. Sure enough, -ieren verbs gave rise to a new Russian suffix, -ирова, and, likewise, -ент could be a Russian suffix in its own right, so abonner + ент is a possibility.

  10. Back to the original piece, though. It looks like the author enjoys confusing herself and her readers. Надеть is to put on, and одеть is to dress. What’s so sophisticated about it?
    The желательный/желанный dilemma is a different story. I’d say both Kristine and Renee are right. Желанный strongly implies a subject. The way I see it, it’s an object of my desire, my yearning; one that I long for. A lover’s exhortation: «Приди, мой желанный». It is much more likely to modify a person than an inanimate object. It sounds both dated and timeless, but never artificial or lifeless. Note that Smirnistky and Akhmanova translate желанный as 1. desired, longed-for; желанный гость – welcome visitor; 2. уст. (милый, любимый) beloved. (Link to the dictionary.) «Желанный кандидат» is obviously ironic or sarcastic. Louis le Désiré (Louis XVIII, Людовик Желанный) was not meant to be, though.
    Желательный, on the contrary, is typically impersonal, implying either no particular subject or a group. It is the most commonly used in the short form, in structures like «Желательно, чтобы Вы пришли», occasionally with a hint as the subject, «Нам желательно, чтобы Вы пришли». More common is its negative derivative, нежелательный, used in both the full and short form, e.g. «нежелательные последствия», «нежелательное лицо» (persona non grata), «нежелательные элементы» (political, ominous), «нежелательно образование наслоений на внутренней поверхности» or something in that vein. I use it all the time in stuffy business writing, but there’s no love lost between me and the word. It smacks of red tape; it’s a freak, an abnormal creature of the 18th- or 19th-century канцелярия. Consider other –тельный words: жевательный, глотательный, метательный, курительный – all expressing a relation to an action or act. Мечтательный is prone to dreaming; мучительный («В тиши мучительных ночей») is agonizing; not one that is dreamt of or tortured. Even that ugly monster, волнительный, is an illegitimate sibling of волнующий – exciting or thrilling but not excited or thrilled. Therefore, желательный should properly refer to desire and desiring, not to their object. (Желатель, if the word existed, would mean a desirer.) Two thumbs down for the wordie.
    Now let’s not forget a third fellow traveler, желаемый – desired, simply put. Compare the three sentences, and you should get the rest of the picture:
    Сердечный друг, желанный друг,
    Приди, приди: я твой супруг!
    (That’s Lensky’s last letter from Евгений Онегин.)
    Желательный вариант развития событий, без сомнения – третий из изложенных.
    Решив уравнение, получаем желаемый результат.
    There’s a Russian folk/word music singer who goes by Инна Желанная; try changing her stage name (which turns out to be her real name) to Инна Желательная, and you’ll have the whole audience writhing in a bout of laughter.
    Finally, a quote from Mikhail Kuzmin to further confuse you:
    Желанный, неискоренимый,
    Души моей старинный сон!

  11. Man, this is educational. Many thanks, and I love the sentence “I use it all the time in stuffy business writing, but there’s no love lost between me and the word.”

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