I adore a thorough thesaurus. As a professional wordsmith, I turn to mine dozens of times a week. So when Plumb Design asserted that it had found a better way for me to find the elusive perfect word, I was intrigued. And the mesmerizing Visual Thesaurus 2.0 is, in fact, fun to use, and it can be educational — students studying English as a foreign language, for example, could use it as an entertaining vocabulary builder. But it’ll never replace my Roget’s International Thesaurus. For most writers and editors, Visual Thesaurus will be largely superfluous.
Lovely to Look At
Plumb Design has attempted to make the thesaurus more interesting. But for people who love words, the pages of a typical thesaurus are already engaging; a colorful 3-D interface isn’t necessary. Other folks — harried tech writers who need only another way to say robust, for example — don’t typically need dynamic word diagrams or obscure definitions.
To its credit, this program is dynamic and colorful, and it has some smart features. You look up a word by typing it into a text box at the lower right-hand corner of the program’s single, two-paned window (if you misspell a word, you’re out of luck — it doesn’t offer suggestions). Visual Thesaurus displays your word in a cluster map of related words. Parts of speech are indicated by color, and 16 types of related words are shown: from synonyms to “is a part of” words (for example, page is a part of book). You can choose to see only particular relationships (in any combination), via a drop-down menu. Click and drag to rotate your word map in 3-D space, and click on any word to create a brand-new word map based on that word (this is where the program can become hypnotic). Visual Thesaurus remembers each word you look up in a session (but you can’t “bookmark” words). You can view pop-up definitions and connection types by mousing over word clusters and lines. The looked-up word’s definitions are displayed in the window’s right-hand pane.
The Good Word
Visual Thesaurus just didn’t give me what any thesaurus must: good synonyms. When I searched for an alternative to pink, even Microsoft Word’s thesaurus gave me more synonyms for the color (salmon, rose, and light red). Visual Thesaurus devoted half its word map to synonyms of the obscure verb pink that means “to make a pinging noise” (although it acknowledged some other definitions, it didn’t give synonyms for more-obvious alternative meanings of pink — “to pierce,” for instance). And although the elastic word clusters look very cool, they don’t truly supply the program’s promised “exploration of word relationships.” A good dictionary will explain that the three aforementioned pinks have different etymological origins.
I did another test with pretty — Visual Thesaurus connected it to beautiful, jolly, and bad (as in “a pretty kettle of fish”). Clicking on beautiful got me more of what I wanted. But as in most cases, Roget’s served me a lot better. Looking up pretty in Roget’s led me to a long section devoted to the idea of beauty, separated by parts of speech and including everything from slang and idioms to the names of historical beauties. And Visual Thesaurus ignores many words. For example, I asked for a synonym for pulchritude and got only the word’s definition.
Using Visual Thesaurus is, at least, a lot faster than flipping around in a book, and you can drag words from the program into text documents (Word documents, for example).
Macworld’s Buying Advice
Visual Thesaurus is an appealing novelty item, and it may be useful in some educational environments. It also gives you a few things a paper thesaurus doesn’t — such as the ability to search for unconventional word relationships. But the needs of most thesaurus users will be better met by a comprehensive reference book, which will probably cost (in paperback) around half as much as this program.