Richard Dawkins has claimed many times in public speeches, especially in reference to the documentary “Expelled”, that documentary filmmakers use the expression “Lord Privy Seal” in a disparaging manner to describe the amateur’s tendency to illustrate words or sentences spoken by the narrator with a straight picture depicting said concept.

However, a Google search for the term only reveals references to the English nobility title (which the saying is supposedly derived from) and to Richard Dawkins making this claim. Even the Wikipedia entry refers to Richard Dawkins. One would think that if it’s a well-known expression in the trade, surely some documentary filmmaking fansite, glossary or handbook would define the term, and Google should be able to find such a page which predates Richard Dawkins.

Is this term real, or did Richard Dawkins (or someone he knows) make it up?

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    Lord Privy Seal is not a title of the English/British nobility; though it has been held by a number of them. It's a title granted to the holder of the monarch's privy (private) seal. Effectively, it's someone who's job is to stamp the outgoing post with the confirmation that this was actually from the monarch.
    – Ben
    Sep 2 '12 at 18:48
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    This would be better on the English Language site. Feb 3 '19 at 3:34

No, Richard Dawkins did not invent the term.

"Lord Privy Seal" is a reference to a parody of the practice performed by David Frost, on The Frost Report in 1966.

Since then, the trope has been known by other terms, such as B Roll Rebus.

Webster's Online Dictionary acknowledges this usage and the etymology:

The term "Lord Privy Seal" (as in "not bad, but it's a bit Lord Privy Seal") is used in the British television industry as shorthand for associating pictures too closely and literally with every element of the accompanying spoken script

Webster's seems to rely on the memoirs of BBC insider, John Sergeant, Give me Ten Seconds, for the usage.


Oddthinking's pointer to David Frost in 1966 shows the use in film making, but the over-literal interpretation of the title of position (in fact a minister without portfolio who had historically looked after the monarch's private seal) was promoted by Edward Heath (Lord Privy Seal 1961-1963), which he attributed to Ernest Bevin (Lord Privy Seal 1951), saying he

was neither a lord, nor a privy nor a seal

This was repeated by the British Ambassador in Washington D.C. and reported in US local newspapers, such as the Florence Times, Alabama on December 18 1961.

  • The hyperlink "he attributed to Ernest Bevin" leads to archives.parliament.uk which doesn't refer to Bevin. Perhaps it should lead to "I am neither a lord, nor a privy, nor a seal." quoted by Francis Beckett, Clem Attlee: A Biography. London: Richard Cohen Books, 1997, p. 285, who adds "he is said to have commented".
    – Michael
    Apr 12 '20 at 16:27
  • A case perhaps of link-rot, well spotted. Apr 12 '20 at 16:49
  • It was on the Parliament website: see web.archive.org/web/20150609141235/http://…
    – Henry
    Apr 12 '20 at 19:51

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