16 – The Powers That Be

Fifty common expressions that originated from the Bible that influence our language today.

The Powers That Be – “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” (Romans 13:1 – Nero was the Emperor at the time). In the Bibliotheca Politica (1694), Seventeenth-century philosopher, James Tyrrell, wrote: “The Powers that be, that is, the Princes and Emperors who now govern the World, are ordained and appointed by God.” Not only does this section of Scripture deal with our obligations towards government, it also speaks about the government responsibility towards us.

We often use this phrase, in a resigned or ironic sense, to describe nameless authorities handing down impersonal judgements. It was in just such a manner that Rudyard Kipling used it in his poem, “Study of an Elevation, in Indian Ink” (1886). Today the expression is often used in comedy routines, sitcom episodes, and satirical journalism. Conspiracy theorists often abbreviate the phrase as TPTB

While linguist’s debates syntax, subjunctive and whether the plural tantum “be” is archaic should be replaced with the singular “is,” the consensus to leave it alone for the following reasons:

It’s a conventional phrase – its place in history is established as an idiom or quote.

It’s communicative effect – pragmatically it gets the point across. The use of “be” completes the statement, the use of “are” or “is” results in a question.

It’s cool – their words, it just sounds better.

Sounds likes some good reasons for staying with the King James Bible – it’s conventional, it’s communicative and it’s cool – it just sounds better.

Posted in Influence

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