The Powers That Be

Dave Wilton dave at WILTON.NET
Wed Apr 17 14:23:09 UTC 2013

The KJV translators probably just copied the phrase from Tyndale. (Most of
the KJV is Tyndale's translation.)

The question is what Tyndale intended, and I don't think we can answer that
definitively. Possibilities include:

--He was using "be" in the indicative. This isn't "standard" ME, but there's
so much variability in ME that it's possible.

--He simply changed the earlier Wycliffite "ben" (which can be either
indicative or subjunctive) to "be."

--He was using the subjunctive, despite what the Latin and Greek texts say.
(I don't know Greek either, but the Vulgate is definitely indicative. Douay
Rheims translates the Vulgate "quae autem sunt" as "those that are.")
Tyndale changes the text anyway, so a switch in mood isn't the biggest
change he makes. It is Tyndale who explicitly adds "powers" to this phrase.

Regardless, the idiomatic phrase is from Tyndale/KJV. It's an idiom, so the
grammatical construction is irrelevant to the later use of the phrase.

-----Original Message-----
From: American Dialect Society [mailto:ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU] On Behalf Of
W Brewer
Sent: Wednesday, April 17, 2013 9:51 AM
Subject: Re: The Powers That Be

Maybe checking out some earlier sources for Romans 13:1 could shed light on
the mood in 'powers that be'. The NT Gk looks like it has a nominative
plural feminine present active indicative participle (ai ousai 'the [sc.
powers] being/existing'). (Could be wrong, the only NT Gk I ever had to deal
with was the Kyrie Eleison.) Vulgate has third person plural present
indicative active (quae sunt '[sc. powers] which are'). If KJV were
influenced by these indicative moods, then the BE in POWERS THAT BE should
be indicative as well.

Greek New Testament--  pasa psyche: exousiais uperechousais upotassestho: /
ou gar estin exousia ei me: upo theou / AI de OUSAI upo theou tetagmenai

Latin Vulgate--  omnis anima potestatibus sublimioribus subdita sit / non
est enim potestas nisi a Deo / QUAE autem SUNT a Deo ordinatae sunt King
James--  Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no
power but of God: the powers THAT BE are ordained of God.

On Wed, Apr 17, 2013 at 8:00 PM, Dave Wilton <dave at> wrote:

> ---------------------- Information from the mail header
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> Sender:       American Dialect Society <ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU>
> Poster:       Dave Wilton <dave at WILTON.NET>
> Subject:      Re: The Powers That Be
> ----------------------------------------------------------------------
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> The OED's first citation is from Tyndale's 1526 translation of Romans
> 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
> facbook)?
> 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,
> BT
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