Fifteen Years of wood s lot.

Five years ago I wrote:

I am in awe of Mark Woods, who’s been putting out wood s lot for ten years now. It’s all I can do to crank out a post a day; you could say Mark puts out a post a day too, but each of his is equivalent to a dozen or two of mine. He somehow finds the time and energy to put together a collection of images, links, and quotes that make my mind and soul feel a little better stocked; of late he usually includes one or two of his own gorgeous photographs as well.

It’s still as true as ever now that the s lot is fifteen, and with every passing year my awe grows. Just look at that magnificent, many-branched tree at the top of today’s post: what a fine symbol of the blog itself, spreading in all directions, growing ever more interestingly knotty, and providing shade and comfort for all who approach! Today’s post starts with a poem by Elizabeth Bishop, always one of Mark’s favorites; features several paintings by one of the many wonderful artists he’s introduced me to, in this case Paul Sérusier; and ends with this delightful quote from Boris Johnson. mayor of London:

There is one thing that is absolutely certain about throwing a dead cat on the dining room table — and I don’t mean that people will be outraged, alarmed, disgusted. That is true, but irrelevant. The key point, says my Australian friend, is that everyone will shout, ‘Jeez, mate, there’s a dead cat on the table!’ In other words, they will be talking about the dead cat — the thing you want them to talk about — and they will not be talking about the issue that has been causing you so much grief.

May this indispensable blog flourish for many more years!

Update. I am sorry to report that Mark died on February 9, 2017; see this memorial post.


  1. Re. the dead cat on the table. In Icelandic the expression is “a dab of butter” (smjörklípa). It was invented by an ex-Prime Minister who introduced and explained the concept in an interview years after he’d left office.

    The idea springs from a childhood prank of his: dabbing some butter on a cat’s tail (near the rump I imagine, where the cat has a hard time getting at it) and then watch the animal turn in circles and go into all kinds of contortions to try to clean itself.

    Needless to say this Prime Minister was an expert at conjuring up dabs of butter to drive people into a frenzy over matters of little significance. Thereby overshadowing the real issues.

  2. Does anyone know of other examples of similar terms?

    I guess a red herring is similar, but it is meant to not be so blunt.

  3. I guess, an American “dab of butter” is a “shiny object” that is being chased instead of pursuing a real issue. Anyways, Boris Johnson suggestion to do something outrageous in order to deflect attention is not that often used. Classic example is the dog of Alcibiades. I am still not sure whether Trump candidacy is in the same vein.

  4. Churchill, mythologically, inserted a metal wire into his cigar, to keep people’s attention on the ever-growing ash at its end and away from Attlee’s speeches.

  5. Does anyone know of other examples of similar terms?

    MacGuffin is a similar concept, isn’t it?

  6. Similar, but not similar enough. A MacGuffin isn’t there to distract you but to provide an excuse for what the director really wants to do (explore the cinematic possibilities of tension and flight, for example): “The specific nature of a MacGuffin is typically unimportant to the overall plot.”

  7. I guess for living cats, a laser pointer on the wall would be the same as a dead cat on a table for humans.

  8. So a dead cat on the table is the opposite of an elephant in the room.

  9. And Donald Trump is this season’s dead cat.

  10. And, referring to the previous post, having to indulge in masses of page-presentation and font drudgery when writing a book might take one’s mind off one’s thoughts. Could extend that to anything. But shaping, entirely, a multilingual book is quite something, and not to be recommended. It’s bad enough when you write in one language.

  11. La Horde Listener says

    Not a similar term, just a similar tactic. I’ve noticed, drearily, TV commercials out here (AZ, USA) are taking to having the actors babble for a while, then right before they’re done somebody will abruptly bring up a completely unrelated tasty dessert item. A commercial typically begins with some dude in a neutral colored suit and fungus-like face droning “Here at Mendacity Insurance, we pride ourselves in thuh thuh thuh…” The other actors speak their lines, posture, and banter in sing song, then some specially chirpy shill blurts out something about “blah blah blah blah CHERRY PIE! “. Cherry pie? Whoa! The more obnoxious ads keep chanting it like sorcerers; the all out migraine crapfests have everybody taking a turn: the baritone (“cherry pie?”), the mezzo (“cherry pie.”), the countertenor (“cherry PIE???”), the office oktavist (“CHERRY PIE.”). It works! Audience members salivate, their mental agility slows. That litany of dry facts about The Mendacity Insurance Company is rapidly forgotten, and, well, doesn’t everybody know some old pain in the ass relative or neighbor who has a way of warbling to pretty much any female in the general vicinity of the kitchen “Er, uh, say*… is there any more of that cherry pie left?” when they know full well the answer’s yes and are craftily trying to get somebody to serve it to them? The mealy mouthed bleating continues. “D-D-Do we still have any of that WHIPPED CREAM? And maybe a little glass of that pumpkin egg nog?” And you want to snap “Oh shut up, Uncle Orville! You know damned well the leftovers are right there on the middle shelf of the fridge wrapped up in transparent plastic wrap. You can’t miss it. Why don’t you just ask and one of us will bring a piece to you? Stop trying to pretend it hasn’t been on your mind since last night when you gnawed your way through about 23-40% of it all by yourself, then flopped down into a fifteen hour nap because it’s too rich and has a soporific effect with all that lard Aunt Gretchen packs into the crust. We’re glad you like it, but come on. I swear, you’re not fooling anybody.” The point is somebody brings up an unrelated baked item (pie, cake, sweet muffins) and bang! Instant Pavlovian juggernaut. *It always begins with “Say!”

  12. I believe the wire in the cigar is also attributed to Clarence Darrow who supposedly used the ploy to distract jurors from the prosecutor’s summation. There is no evidence, however, of its truth that I know of.

  13. Just found your wonderful blog, now on my reading list. Bravo for pointing out Mark Woods blog. I have been reading it for 12+ years. A beautiful touchstone on the interweb.

  14. With some apprehension, I note that Mark Woods has not updated his site, ‘wood s lot’, since July 13, 2016. He rarely missed a few days of posting over the years, but I don’t recall this long a delay in his posting.

    Does anyone have any news on his welfare?

  15. I’ve been concerned myself, so I just dropped him a line and will report back if I hear anything.

  16. Still no new posts, and no response to my e-mail. Over three months now. I’m not going to pester him; I can only hope he’s OK and just taking a break.

  17. new haven stump jumper says

    Missing wood s lot very much. Has been a touchstone for me on the web since the early 2000’s. Hope all is well with Mark.

  18. You and me both.

  19. Wood S Lot: Is there anyone in the ‘language community’ who knows Mr Woods, and could inquire about the cessation of blog posts? I don’t need anyone to disrespect his privacy, it’s just that in all my years living with the web, his was the ONLY site I’d visit six days a week…for years. If there’s anything I could do, even just to let him know how much the web community values his work, I’d do it…

  20. I’ve corresponded with him in the past, but received no response to my e-mail about this; maybe at the end of the year I’ll try again, sending him best wishes for the holidays. I really hope he’s OK and just taking a break.

  21. Five months as of today.

  22. Not with a bang nor even a whimper.

  23. Any updates on Mark? I’ve also been a long time fan of the blog and have been concerned by the sudden break in postings. This is the only site where I’ve seen mention of it. Hope all is alright

  24. Well, I sent him a new year’s greeting and said I (and many readers) hoped he was well and would appreciate an update, and haven’t heard back, so I guess we’ll just have to let it go and hope for the best. Obviously, if anyone out there knows Mark and feels comfortable letting us know what’s going on, I (and many readers) would appreciate it. And Mark, if you read this, we miss you and wish you well!

  25. Landed here looking for news of Mark as well. He is greatly missed. I am going to try sending some snail mail his way. Will report back if I hear anything.

  26. Please do, and thanks in advance. I think/worry about him quite a bit.

  27. It is with regret that I have to let folks know that my brother, Mark, lost a lengthy, difficult battle with cancer on February 9, 2017. I appreciate seeing the value that his work / obsession / joy brought to so many. Thank you for supporting him over all the years.

  28. Oh, no. I can’t tell you how sorry I am to hear that; thanks very much for taking the time to let us know, and you have my most sincere condolences.

  29. It is a great loss to our corner of the Internet; my condolences to Mark’s family.

  30. Condolences to you and your family. Mark was a dynamic presence amongst we early bloggers.

  31. new haven stump jumper says

    Sorry for your loss Rod. He is greatly missed. I hope a complete archive can be assembled. It looks like the archive Mark had assembled has a gap between Oct 2013 and 2016. Some of it is available on but it appears to be incomplete.

  32. Oh, that’s terrible. I join you in your hope. It’s an irreplaceable resource.

  33. Aleksandra says

    I’m sorry for your loss, Rod. My most sincere condolences to you and your family. I discovered Mark’s wonderful blog almost 15 years ago and it has accompanied me since. He is and will be greatly missed. Aleksandra (Poland)

  34. gregorylent says

    greatest blog on the internet .. what a great contribution to the hearts and souls of this internet world .. would love to know more of his passing ..

  35. I first discovered Wood S Lot around seven years ago, in my first year devoted to literary studies and philosophy. I put in a search for Walter Benjamin, and Mark’s blog was a result. It had since been like a private treasure I would share with new friends. I was glad to see this space a few months ago, and have kept checking to see if any word had surfaced. Thanks for being a fellow inquisitor.

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