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.
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.
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 exploring.
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 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.
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 or reidgold.com.