The Powers That Be

In almost every book I read lately, the author mentions, at least once, “the powers that be.” The expression irritates me because . . . well, because it’s irritating. It’s a cliché, and like so many clichés, it’s too general. If “the powers that be” refer to the people who decide what is allowed or acceptable in a group or organization or government, then in any given situation, the powers that be are different. For example, if the author is referring to the board in charge of a homeowner’s association, then those powers that be are completely different from those governing a country.

So to use the phrase “the powers that be” is not just a cliché, but it’s also pure laziness on the author’s part. If “the powers that be” in a book are important enough to be mentioned in such a haphazard way, then they are important enough to be mentioned more specifically, by occupation if nothing else.

Sometimes the author puts those words in a character’s mouth, which is even worse because truly, no one ever uses that phrase in everyday conversation. They say, “the cops” or “the governor” or the “president’ or they mention the person by name or title.

I took time out of from this diatribe to see where the phrase came from, and it’s an old one. Many centuries-old phrases come from Shakespeare or the bible, and this one is no different. Do you care to hazard a guess before I tell you?

If you guessed the bible, you’re right. The first time the phrase showed up in print was in William Tyndale’s 1526 translation of the New Testament: “Let every soul submit himself unto the authority of the higher powers. There is no power but of God. The powers that be, are ordained of God.”

The King James version is: “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)

It seems to me the common literary usage has come to mean something, if not completely different, then a sideways skew, because in no usage I’ve ever read do “the powers that be” have anything to do with getting their authority from God. Generally, they are given their power by other (secular) powers that be or they take upon themselves whatever power they have.

Another phrase I frequently come across in books are “the authorities,” which basically means the same thing — that the author is too lazy to figure out who those authorities are. I have to confess, I think I might have used “the authorities” once for that very reason: I didn’t know who my particular authorities would be, so I copped out.

Now that I got that off my chest, I can go back to reading the book, though I imagine I will still grit my teeth whenever I come across either “the authorities” or “the powers that be” just as I grit my teeth and bear it whenever I come across authorities or powers that be in real life.


What if God decided S/He didn’t like how the world turned out, and turned it over to a development company from the planet Xerxes for re-creation? Would you survive? Could you survive?

A fun book for not-so-fun times.

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6 Responses to “The Powers That Be”

  1. annemariedemyen Says:

    Great post as always, Pat.

  2. Joe Says:

    This got me to wondering how authority/ies and author came to mean “those in power/control/who know what’s going on” and “a creator or originator” respectively. Author comes from Latin auctor, “writer” or “progenitor” and Middle English auctour, from Anglo-French auctor, autor, from Latin auctor “promoter, originator, author,” from augēre “to increase.”

    I wonder how “authorities” came to mean those in charge? Ah, I see: from Latin auctoritat-, auctoritas “opinion, decision, power,” from auctor. So it’s still derived from auctor. Interesting!

    • Pat Bertram Says:

      It makes sense, actually — authors used to be those who had time and money and power. The rest of the world was doing menial labor. And books were written on “authoritative” subjects rather than made-up stuff like they are today,

  3. Estragon Says:

    It’s interesting how even words or phrases in common experience usage can mean different things to different people. When I hear “the powers that be”, it seems to be saying more about the speaker that the “powers” being spoken of.

    As you note, people often refer to a specific power appropriate to the circumstance (police, president, etc.). In a context where a specific power is complex or diffuse, the reference might be to a sort of placeholder, for example “law enforcement”, or “authority having jurisdiction” (often used in construction).

    The reference to “powers that be” suggests to me the speaker is a disavowing responsibility for the current situation and any subsequent outcomes. If the outcome is positive their submission to the power might help achieve that outcome. If the outcome is negative it’s “God’s will”, irrespective of any action or lack thereof on the part of the speaker. Reference to a more specific power implies at least some degree of power on the part of the speaker (eg. to vote for president), so some degree of responsibility for outcomes. It’s a sort of pre-emptive invocation of a “just following orders” defence.

    With this interpretation the “cop out” is on the part of the character in the story. Obviously it could also be on the part of a lazy writer, especially if the story doesn’t address the choices around whatever issue the “powers that be” are dealing with.

    • Pat Bertram Says:

      Come to think of it, there seems to be a tinge of irony around the usage of the phrase “the powers that be,” So yes, it does seem as if the speaker is disavowing responsibility, and perhaps even mocking those with power.

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