In the competitive world of personal computers, software companies act like little empires, conquering related programs and gobbling up the territory they once held. Programs continually add features, causing other software that once consisted of only those features to go away.
The most commonly used office-type program, the word processor, is a case in point. Popular programs such as Microsoft Word now include a spelling and grammar checker, thesaurus, clip art, hyperlinking, page layout, envelope and label creation, mail merge, and other tools that you once needed other programs for.
New Enabling Add-ons
But niches still exist where enterprising third-party companies can provide add-ons that enable you to do useful things that Word alone can’t. Two good ones released relatively recently are Word Menu and GuruNet, both of which you can download and try out for free.
Word Menu is an idea thesaurus, similar to the older and still existing program IdeaFisher, though at $34.95 it’s less expensive. The program, in essence, is a database of words organized hierarchically into categories, or menus.
The simplest way to use the program is to browse through its 76,423 words in their 984 categories (new words are added periodically through Web updates). By browsing this way you can, for instance, learn the lingo of an unfamiliar field, from banking to dance. Terms are accompanied by short definitions.
You can also use the search feature to turn the program into a reverse dictionary, which will let you find the right word through other words in its definition, and a thesaurus, which will show you related words.
Ingenuously, the program lets you right-click on a word to connect to the Web sites Dictionary.com or Thesaurus.com for more definitions or synonyms. A fast Internet connection helps here.
Word Menu, at www.wordmenu.com, is available for computers running Windows or Mac OS X. The initial download is about 12 megabytes, with the free trial period lasting two weeks.
GuruNet, formerly called Atomica, is another wordsmithing tool, although it integrates more tightly with both a word processor (or any other program) and the Web. Most of GuruNet’s content resides on its Web site rather than on your hard disk. This makes a fast Internet connection even more important.
One you install the program, you can find out more about any word on your screen in any program you’re in if you just click on it while holding down the Alt key. Or you can change this sequence, to Shift-Alt-click, for instance.
When you call upon the program this way, you’re sent to GuruNet’s site, which first presents you with a definition of the word, more detailed than with Word Menu. If you click on the speaker icon, a man’s voice pronounces the word for you through your computer’s speakers.
You can access more information about the word by clicking on tabs at the top of the window. These tabs show you synonyms for the word and any special technological or military meaning it may have.
Others tabs, impressively, provide a small film clip of a woman saying the word using sign language, translations of the word in 15 foreign languages, images relating to the word available for downloading, and news stories related to it. In all, you can access up to 150 dictionaries, glossaries, and reference works about the word you’re exploring.
You can try out GuruNet, at www.atomica.com, without charge for one week. After that, there’s a one-time charge of $39.99. Alternatively, you can use an abridged, ad-supported version for free. GuruNet currently works only with Windows and Microsoft Internet Explorer. The initial download is about 1.5 megabytes.
Compare, Contrast, Combine
There’s nothing stopping you from using both programs simultaneously.
GuruNet is more comprehensive and complements CD-ROM or DVD-based reference works such as Encyclopaedia Britannica, at www.eb.com, and Microsoft Encarta Reference Library, at www.microsoft.com/encarta.
Word Menu complements such dictionaries as Oxford English Dictionary(Second Edition) on CD-ROM and The New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary on CD-ROM, at http://dictionary.oed.com, and the American Heritage Talking Dictionary, an older but still excellent dictionary and thesaurus available through various online discounters for under $10.
Reid Goldsborough, a syndicated columnist and author of the book Straight Talk About the Information Superhighway, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or www.netaxs.com/~reidgold/column.