Powers That Be: Definition, Meaning, and Origin

Last Updated on
November 14, 2023

The phrase "powers that be" is used to talk about the people in charge of a situation, organization, or government. It is often used to describe those who have the most authority or control. The phrase can be used in both formal and casual settings, and it can relate to various sectors like politics, business, or even social groups.

In short:

  • It refers to those in charge or with authority.
  • It is commonly used to talk about leaders or decision-makers in various contexts.

What Does "Powers That Be" Mean?

When someone talks about the "powers that be," they're pointing to the people or organizations with the most influence or control. It could mean the top bosses at your job, government officials, or any group that has a say in big decisions. For example, you might hear someone say, "I don't know if the holiday will get approved; it's up to the powers that be.

Let's look at its basic meanings and how it's used:

  • It's a way to talk about authority figures or governing bodies without naming them directly.
  • You'll hear this phrase when people discuss who has the final say in decisions.
  • The phrase is often used when the specific identities of these powers are either unknown or not the focus of the conversation.
  • It can show up in all sorts of conversations - from office chats about management decisions to political debates.
  • Other ways to express the same idea might include "the higher-ups," "the decision-makers," or "those in charge."

Where Does "Powers That Be" Come From?

The phrase “powers that be” is derived from the Bible, specifically Romans 13. It first appeared in print in English in Tyndale’s Bible in 1526. Historically, this phrase has been used to refer to those in positions of authority or governance. It carries a sense of respect and deference towards these entities, acknowledging their ordained status.

Historical Example

“Let every soule submit him selfe vnto the auctorite of ye hyer powers. For there is no power but of God. The powers that be are ordeyned of God. Whosoever therfore resysteth power resisteth the ordinaunce of God. And they that resist shall receave to the selfe damnacio.” 

10 Examples of "Powers That Be" in Sentences

To help you get a good handle on when and how to use this phrase, let's go over some examples in various situations:

  • When the office ran out of coffee, Steve said it was up to the powers that be to restock it.
  • When the powers that be look aside, injustices often go unchecked.
  • The powers that be have made their final call on the new policy changes.
  • I thought I could change the system, but with the powers that be against me, it seems the joke’s on me.
  • He decided not to complain about the parking situation because it wouldn't change the minds of the powers that be.
  • The powers that be in the music industry decide what gets played on the radio.
  • When the favorite restaurant changed its menu, customers wondered what the powers that be were thinking.
  • The new policy at work was unpopular, but employees knew the powers that be weren't going to change it.
  • Despite the resistance from the powers that be, we must rise to the challenge and advocate for change.
  • To make a difference in our community, we need a hand not just from our neighbors but also from the powers that be.

Examples of "Powers That Be" in Pop Culture

This phrase isn't just for serious talks; you'll also hear it in movies, TV shows, and songs.

Check out these examples:

  • The TV series "The Powers That Be" aired on NBC from March 7, 1992, to January 2, 1993. The show was a creation of David Crane and Marta Kauffman, with Norman Lear as the executive producer.
  • The Powers That B” is the fourth studio album by the experimental hip-hop group Death Grips.
  • In the song “The Powers That Be” by Roger Waters, there’s a line in the lyrics that says: "They’re the powers that be. They like a bombproof Cadillac. Air-conditioned, gold taps. Back seat gun rack. Platinum hubcaps."

Synonyms: Other Ways to Say "Powers That Be"

If you're looking for some simpler phrases to use, here you go:

  • Those in charge
  • The big shots
  • Decision-makers
  • The bosses
  • Authority figures
  • Top brass
  • Higher-ups
  • Ruling class
  • Leaders
  • Bigwigs

10 Frequently Asked Questions About "Powers That Be"

  • What does "powers that be" mean?

"Powers that be" refers to people or organizations that have authority or control in a particular setting. This could be your bosses at work, government officials, or any group that makes decisions.

  • How can I use "powers that be" in a sentence?

You can use it to talk about those who have the final say or control over a situation. For example: "I don't make the rules, that's up to the powers that be," or "The powers that be decided to cut our budget."

  • Is the phrase negative or neutral?

The phrase is generally neutral but can take on a negative or positive tone depending on the context. For example, if the powers that be make a good decision, it's positive; if they make a bad one, it's negative.

  • Does it refer only to formal authorities?

No, it can refer to any person or group with influence or control, whether it's a formal authority like a government or an informal one like the popular kids at school.

  • Where did the phrase originate?

The phrase "powers that be" originally comes from the Bible, specifically Romans 13:1, where it's used to describe governing authorities.

  • Is it commonly used today?

Yes, it's a commonly used term to describe those in control in various settings, like work, politics, or even family dynamics.

  • Is it ever used in a sarcastic manner?

Yes, sometimes people use "powers that be" sarcastically when they disagree with a decision but feel powerless to change it.

  • Does the phrase imply a level of secrecy?

Not necessarily. While it can imply some level of distance between decision-makers and those affected, it doesn't automatically mean those in power are secretive.

  • Can it be used in both singular and plural forms?

The phrase is usually plural, referring to a group or a collective authority, not often to a single individual.

  • Is it a formal or casual expression?

The phrase can be used in both formal and casual settings, but it's often seen in more formal or written communication.

Final Thoughts About "Powers That Be"

The idiom "powers that be" is a versatile way to talk about people or groups who have some level of authority or control. Whether you're discussing the board members of a company or the leaders of a country, it sums up who's calling the shots.

Here's a quick recap:

  • The term is often used to discuss decision-makers in various situations.
  • It can be used in a neutral, positive, or negative manner based on context.
  • It doesn't just refer to formal authorities; it can also describe informal ones.
  • The phrase is commonly used today in both casual and formal conversations.

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