Skip to main content
The Knowledge logo

25-28 December

Twenty-one things we learnt in 2021

Staying young

The Queen has never lifted a dumbbell or taken part in intense physical exercise, says Sajjad Choudhury in Medium. Yet our 95-year-old monarch lives on and on, almost as active as ever. When she visited George Bush Sr at the White House in the 1990s, he was astonished by her ability to walk so briskly that it “left even the Secret Service panting”. And, despite her recent health scare, she’s determined to keep riding. Her secret? Long walks every day at about 2.30pm. And a simple, nutritious diet with the occasional treat.


😂 The laughing crying emoji is seen as a marker of old age by Gen Z. It’s the most popular emoji for millennials and baby-boomers on Twitter, but tears of laughter are too earnest for the gritty younger generation. They prefer 💀 to convey humour – a visual representation of “dying from laughter”.

Eating in

Haggis is actually English. The delicacy didn’t appear in a Scottish text until 1513, having been an English staple throughout the 13th century. Only after the Jacobite rising of 1745 did sneering southerners cast their former favourite dish as a “miserly” meal, fit only for lowly Scots.


Quoted Zsa 25-12

“I am a marvellous housekeeper. Every time I leave a man, I keep his house.”

Zsa Zsa Gabor

Tomorrow’s world

The US navy is so worried about a cyberattack knocking out its GPS systems that it is teaching its sailors to navigate by the stars.


We may think hedgerows are on the decline, but there are still more miles of them in the UK (310,000) than there are roads (249,000). 


James Joyce was once stopped in the street by a man who wanted to kiss the hand that had written Ulysses. The author declined, explaining that “it did a lot of other things too”.


My invitation to the Society of Procrastinators Christmas party arrived in the post, says Craig Brown in the Daily Mail. “Attached was a slip of paper: I WILL/WILL NOT/WILL/WILL NOT BE ATTENDING/ACTUALLY YES I WILL/NO I WON’T. Then the injunction: ‘Please tick no fewer than three of the above options.’ In the end, I ticked all the boxes, just to be on the safe side.”

Inside politics

Kamala Harris became the most powerful person in the world in November – for an hour and 25 minutes. The US Vice President took control of the country while Joe Biden, 79, was under anaesthesia for a colonoscopy. Donald Trump refused to go under when he had a similar procedure because he didn’t want to hand over power to Mike Pence.

Quirks of history

The seventh US president, Andrew Jackson, had such a foul mouth that his pet parrot, Poll, developed a swearing habit. The bird’s language was so vulgar, it had to be removed from Jackson’s funeral in 1845. 


Quoted Italy 25-12

“An alcohol-free day during the lockdown is rather like governing Italy – possible but essentially pointless.”

William Clouston, leader of the Social Democratic Party


When he died in 1832, the English philosopher Jeremy Bentham left money to UCL on one condition: it had to preserve his skeleton and wheel it out for the annual general meeting. To this day his mummified body “attends” the AGM in a mahogany case with glass doors, sitting in an armchair with his favourite walking stick.


During the UN General Assembly in New York in September, Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro was pictured munching pizza on a street with some of his ministers and advisers. The vaccine-sceptic leader hadn’t had the jab, so he wasn’t allowed to eat in any of the city’s restaurants.

Gone viral

A video of a pygmy marmoset tentatively befriending a bush cricket bowled over Twitter users this spring. The clip is from the Apple TV+ series Tiny World, which is dedicated to the smallest animals on the planet. The South American pygmy marmoset is one such mini creature – it’s the smallest monkey in the world. Adults typically weigh 100g and can fit in the palm of your hand.

On the money

UK footwear company Shoe Zone this year appointed the appropriately named Terry Boot as its finance boss. He replaced Peter Foot.

Quirks of history

Frédéric-Auguste Bartholdi, creator of the Statue of Liberty, first tried to plant his luminous lady at the entrance to the Suez Canal. She was to be an Egyptian peasant swathed in robes and holding a torch, entitled Egypt Bringing Light to Asia. The Egyptians rejected the proposal in 1869, declaring it too costly.


Quoted Astor 25-12

“The penalty of success is to be bored by the people who used to snub you.”

Nancy Astor

Tomorrow’s world

Scientists at MIT are growing wood in petri dishes. In the same way meat has been created in laboratories, researchers have grown wood structures without soil or sunlight, using cells from zinnia leaves.


Jane Austen wasn’t much of a gardener. In 1811, the 35-year-old novelist was charged with looking after her sister Cassandra’s mulberry trees while she was away. Austen killed them all. “I will not say that your mulberry trees are dead,” she wrote in a letter to her sister, “but I am afraid they are not alive.”


Quoted Braston 25-12

“Philosophy is common sense in a dress suit.”

Oliver Braston

Eating in

The hashtag #Pastachips has racked up more than a billion views on TikTok. Boiled, tossed in oil and parmesan, then air-fried, it’s a snacking craze that has gone viral. Don’t have an air-fryer? Food blogger My Nguyen advises baking at 220C for eight minutes, tossing, then baking again for another five minutes. To make a macaroni cheese dip, melt two tbsp of butter, 120ml double cream and 360g cheese in a pan, salt and garlic powder. Ecco – you’ve well and truly offended an Italian.


Queen Victoria is “the most notorious drug kingpin of all time”, says Sam Kelly in History Is Now magazine. She is thought to have drunk a glass of opium-laced laudanum every night and was a huge fan of cocaine chewing gum. She even offered free samples of opium to Chinese citizens in a craven attempt to get as many people addicted as possible. It worked a treat: opium ultimately accounted for as much as 20% of the British empire’s annual revenue.


A group of Turkish garbage collectors have opened a 6,000-volume public library in Ankara, using books rescued from people’s rubbish.

Quirks of history

Triboulet, a lively court jester in 16th-century France, once slapped King Francis I on the bum. He told the furious monarch: “I’m so sorry, your majesty, I mistook you for the queen.” Francis sentenced him to death, but allowed him to choose how he wanted to go. Triboulet replied: “Good sire, I choose to die from old age.” The king was so amused that he let him off the hook.


Quoted Mitford 25-12

“I love children, especially when they cry, for then someone takes them away.”

Nancy Mitford


When Kim Kardashian posted a picture of her daughter’s “masterpiece” on Instagram, fans were slightly sceptical. Some doubted that the seven-year-old North West had painted the landscape. Kardashian was having none of it. “DON’T PLAY WITH ME WHEN IT COMES TO MY CHILDREN,” she wrote on Instagram. “Please stop embarrassing yourselves with the negativity and allow every child to be GREAT!!! NORTH WEST PAINTED THAT PERDIOTDDDDDABCDEFGZFDT!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! [sic].” That settles that.

Heroes and villains of the year


Quoted Gove 25-12

“Dance like nobody’s watching, they say. Well, I did. But they were watching.”

Michael Gove on his Aberdeen nightclub escapade