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On-Lame Thesauri

When it comes to word lists, do it by the book.

By Richard Sine

ONE CAN ONLY hope that somewhere underneath all the girlie pictures, P.R. pabulum and right-wing rants there are some useful sites on the World Wide Web. A Yahoo! search turns up no less than seven Web thesauri. WordNet, a creation of the Cognitive Science Department at Princeton University, mimics the way the brain categorizes words. It's fascinating for linguists and may someday help computers recognize word meanings. But as a thesaurus, it's a bust. It's stingy with synonyms, and it slows down the user by asking the part of speech.

The rest of the thesauri are search engines of the original Roget's. Roget's Internet Thesaurus gives you the option of clicking through Roget's bizarre system of classes ("Abstract Relations"), sections ("Existence") and heads ("Intrinsicality"), as if anyone ever did this in the first place. Fortunately, it also contains a regular search engine, which can take you to synonyms in a click or two. A better search engine can be found at the University of Chicago's ARTFL Project.

The search engine eliminates some of the confusion involved in using the paper Roget's. The synonym lists mention a lot of archaic, foreign and unusual references not mentioned in other thesauri, which is educational but frustrating if all you want a few good synonyms fast. The online thesauri will do in a pinch. But at this stage there are few advantages to using an online thesaurus over a paper (or software) one. Unless you've got a very fast Internet connection, it's probably faster to pick up a thesaurus than to launch your browser and try to load a page that may be busy or offline.

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From the November 7-13, 1996 issue of Metro

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