The Powers That Be

Dave Wilton dave at WILTON.NET
Wed Apr 17 12:00:26 UTC 2013

The OED's first citation is from Tyndale's 1526 translation of Romans 13:1.
The KJV also uses it, and the appearance in these two bibles is enough to
explain the phrase's popularity and durability. Tyndale's full clause in the
verse is "The powers that be are ordeyned off God." There is an older 1384
Wycliffite Bible that reads: "thingis that ben," rather than "powers." The
NSRV gives a more modern translation as "those authorities that exist have
been instituted by God."

There's a lot of variability in the ME "to be" and in the subjunctive, so
it's a little hard to pin down the grammatical construction, but I'd say
it's subjunctive. The uncertainty is in the identity of the earthly
authorities: whatever authorities that be, they are ordained by God. (The
Wycliffite "ben" could be either indicative or subjunctive.)

Older collocations may be found, but I'm pretty certain that its use as a
set phrase comes from the biblical translations.

-----Original Message-----
From: American Dialect Society [mailto:ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU] On Behalf Of
Benjamin Torbert
Sent: Tuesday, April 16, 2013 11:09 PM
Subject: The Powers That Be

Someone is asking me about this phrase, and I teach HOtEL, but I ain't no
bona fide historical linguist.

Have we antedated the phrase to ME (which was one of the hypotheses on

My feeling was that it's not really subjunctive, but rather durative.  It's
not that we're not sure whether these powers be.

Also, archaic forms are more likely to be preserved in archaic, set phrases.

Please advise,

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