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.
But niches still exist for enterprising third-party companies
to provide add-ons, enabling 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 is less expensive. The program
at its 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 periodically added through Web updates). By browsing
this way, you can, for instance, learn the lingo of
an unfamiliar field, from banking to world dance. Terms
are accompanied by short definitions.
You can also use the search feature to turn the program
into a reverse dictionary, letting you find the right
word through other words in its definition, and a thesaurus,
showing you related words.
If you’re not satisfied with what the program
itself offers, ingenuously, it 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 2 weeks.
GuruNet, formerly called Atomica, is another wordsmithing
tool, though it more tightly integrates with both your
word processor (or any other program) and the Web. Unlike
with Word Menu, whose content resides mostly on your
hard disk, most of GuruNet’s content resides on
its Web site. This makes a fast Internet connection
even more important.
One you install the program, to find out more about
any word on your screen in any program you’re
in, you just click on it while holding down the Alt
key. Alternately, you can change this sequence, for
instance, to Shift-Alt-click.
When you call upon the program this way, you’re
sent to GuruNet’s Web 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 technology or
military meaning it may have.
Other 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
You can try out GuruNet, at www.atomica.com,
without charge for 1 week. After that, there’s
a one-time charge of $39.99. Alternately, 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.
There’s nothing stopping you from using both
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,
It’s quicker to access information with these
programs than over the Web unless you have cable, DSL,
or other broadband Internet connection, and even if
you have one, CD-ROM or DVD-based programs generally
have more multimedia features than Web reference sites.
Word Menu complements CD-ROM dictionaries as Oxford
English Dictionary (Second Edition) on CD-ROM and
The New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary on
CD-ROM, at 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.
The latter lets you quickly look up definitions, find
synonyms and have a voice pronounce words for you.
Reid Goldsborough is a syndicated columnist and author
of the book Straight Talk About the Information Superhighway.
He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org