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Paper thesaurus: Almost obsolete, out-of-date, passť

I'm getting ready to throw away the two remaining books that sit on my desk - my Webster's dictionary and a thesaurus.

The Internet helps to make these paper-based volumes almost obsolete. I can look up any word from multiple sources on the Net. And with products like the Visual Thesaurus from Thinkmap, my paper thesaurus is becoming old-fashioned.

As its name suggests, Visual Thesaurus graphically maps out relationships between words as opposed to simply listing a series of synonyms.

You can access Visual Thesaurus either as desktop software ($29.95), or online at www.visualthesaurus.com ($11.95/year or $2.95/month). The engine behind the software is based on a Java-coded "visualization technology" from a company articulately named Thinkmap Inc.

The software must be experienced to be appreciated. After you type in a word, you are awarded with a virtual shower of words that pop and burst onto your screen.

At the very least, the Visual Thesaurus is just plain fun - you can click around the spiderweb of results and explore word after word. I type in "generous," click to "lavish," which leads to "lush," which can describe someone who is a "boozer."

On the other hand, Visual Thesaurus is a fantastic tool for students to explore the intricate and complex networks of the English language in a visual, virtual universe.

The software has color-coded panels on the right that identify the nouns, adjectives, verbs and adverbs that are related to your search term. The colors correspond to dots on the main screen, and these parts of speech can be turned off and on as desired.

You also have a wealth of display options you can tweak such as font size and the scale of the Web to be built from your search word.

In the main screen, hovering over a colored dot will pop-up a quick definition of a word - what Visual Thesaurus calls a "meaning." For example, one of the meanings that appears when I search for "world" is "involving the entire earth."

This meaning is connected to "world" with a solid line. But dashed lines represent "connected meanings." In my example, the word "international" appeared as a connected meaning.

Visual Thesaurus doesn't come up with all these meanings and relationships by itself; the results are based on WordNet, an "online lexical reference system" from the Cognitive Science Laboratory at Princeton University.

I found Visual Thesaurus easy to use, but I recommend spending a few minutes reading through the guided tour so the results make sense.

And although I thoroughly enjoy using the Visual Thesaurus, I don't think I'm quite ready to throw away my paper-based Roget's just yet. Visual Thesaurus lets me take a gratifying expedition through a web of words, but there are still times I just want to see a list of lexical alternatives.

I recommend, advocate and commend Visual Thesaurus to students who need a fun, entertaining tool for school, or to anyone else who enjoys searching, exploring and investigating the English language (can you tell I'm using a thesaurus?).

Burney is a free-lance writer in Northfield Center Township.

Cleveland.com, The Plain Dealer. Brett Burney. October 4, 2004

Thinkmap. Visualize Complex Information.