This blog post describes a cool insert-symbol facility built into Office applications like Word, PowerPoint, Excel, and Outlook. The facility is handy for locating mathematical symbols as well as other characters. And with the developments in Unicode these days, that means a lot of symbols! Recently the Unicode Technical Committee and the ISO WG2 Committee accepted the emoji characters popular on Japanese cell phone networks (DoCoMo, KDDI, and SoftBank) and more symbols will be accepted soon. These all add to the many symbols, mathematical and otherwise, that Unicode 5.0 had already offered. The Office math ribbon has a nice selection of Unicode mathematical symbols, but it doesn’t show other kinds of symbols.

In Microsoft Office 2010, you can see many Unicode symbols using Cambria Math and Segoe UI Symbol with the InsertSymbol dialog. Click on the Insert tab followed by the Symbol icon. For some applications, you need to click once more, namely on “More symbols…”. Then you see something like

This example of the dialog lists the Unicode range “Mathematical Operators”, the Unicode name and code of the character selected, “For All”, as well as the shortcut key 2200 alt+x. (It might also be nice to show the autocorrect entry if one exists, e.g., \forall).

Using this facility you can scroll through the characters in any font, just by changing the “Font:” entry. In particular, check out Segoe UI Symbol, which is a great font for symbol characters unless you’re particularly interested in displaying mathematics. You can also scroll through Chinese and Japanese fonts to see what Han Ideographs they have in Plane 2 (U+2xxxx) and on the Basic Multilingual Plane (BMP, which doesn’t mean bitmap in this context!).

This facility is noticably more powerful than the Windows Accessories CharMap applet. That applet can only display characters on the BMP. In particular, it cannot display the Mathematical Alphanumerics (U+1D400..U+1D7FF) that are so handy for mathematical formulas. In contrast, the InsertSymbol dialog can display the Mathematical Alphanumerics and other Plane-1 characters, although it currently doesn’t give their Unicode character names.

It would be cool if we could sketch the character we're looking for. The tech is already there in the math input panel. Unrelated: it took me years to find out that it's possible to resize the insert symbol panel..