Visual Thesaurus: Useful for Everyone, Essential for Word Nerds
By Sally Wiener Grotta and Daniel Grotta
For over a century and a half, folks searching for just the right synonym to express an idea would reach for a thesaurus, which is essentially a well-indexed book containing lists of related words. The problem has always been (and continues even with today’s popular Web-based versions) that it’s all too easy to use the wrong word in the list. For instance, suppose you were writing the sentence, “The child touched the dog.” Looking up “touch” in a traditional thesaurus, the list of synonyms would include “abut,” “tag,” “kiss,” “verge,” “hint,” etc. In other words, with no guidance or understanding of the nuances involved, many people have ended up looking quite silly or even saying the direct opposite of what they meant. Subscription-based Web tool Visual Thesaurus ($3/month or $20/year) sweeps away these problems.
Visual Thesaurus has a dynamic and intuitive graphical interface that is useful, playful and educational. Search on a word, and the display that pops up in the center of the screen makes it quite clear how the words relate to each other. Closely related words are grouped. Solid lines indicate a direct relationship, while a dotted line means that the central word is a type of the other. For example, “contact” is a direct synonym of “touch.” However, as a popup balloon explains when you hover your mouse over the dotted line, “touch” is a type of “solicitation.”
Color dots tell you at a glance if the group of words are nouns (red), verbs (green), adjectives (yellow) or adverbs (purple). Hover over one of those dots, and a pop up gives both a quick definition and an example of how the indicated group of words might be used in a phrase or sentence. For instance, one group of related words connected to “touch” are “soupcon,” “mite,” “pinch,” and “hint.” Their pop-up definition is “a slight but appreciable amount,” and the example is “this dish could use a touch of garlic.” With Visual Thesaurus, the nuances among words are clear.
A right mouse click options (which can be edited by the user) include playing an audio file to pronounce the word, expanding the branch (to see more words) and searching the internet for references (or pictures) of the word. Thus, you can quickly see pictures of a tiger, or learn about their endangered species status, directly from Visual Thesaurus.
To the right of the graphic are lists of definitions of words on the graph, grouped by word type. Hover your cursor on the definition, and the definition will pop up on the related branch of the graph. You can also filter your Visual Thesaurus search, according to the word type you need – noun, adjective, verb or adverb.
The more you dig through Visual Thesaurus, the more it offers, including choice of language (with the option of displaying related words from more than one language at a time), personal word lists, spelling bee practice, crossword puzzles, articles about language, the roots of words and all kinds of other interesting subjects related to lexicography. For the price of a discounted printed thesaurus per year, the whole world of language is opened up in a new and exciting way. Anyone who uses words– professionally, as a student, or simply because language is the cornerstone of our communications–will find Visual Thesaurus enjoyable, useful, and even addictive.