Oppenheimer once said, "I am become death, the destroyer of worlds".

Why did he use an "am" before "become"? Besides, why not use "the world" instead of "worlds"?

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    See related ell.stackexchange.com/questions/279905/…
    – James K
    Apr 2, 2022 at 16:31
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    It's worth noting that Oppenheimer is attempting to quote from the Bhagavad Gita, and is adopting a heightened style, appropriate for how a God might speak. Eg "worlds" because this is Krishna/Vishnu speaking to Arjuna...
    – James K
    Apr 2, 2022 at 16:34
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    And by "attempting to quote" I mean that this is Oppenheimer's own translation/interpretation. Oppenheimer learned Sanskrit, and read the Gita in the original language. However - the short answer is "no", in the context in which Oppenheimer is speaking, there are no errors.
    – James K
    Apr 2, 2022 at 16:42
  • He didn't 'say' that he had become Death; he was quoting. Apr 2, 2022 at 18:16

1 Answer 1


Oppenheimer later said of this moment, and of his choice of translation (according to "J. Robert Oppenheimer Explains How He Recited a Line from Bhagavad Gita ..." from Open Culture):

“We knew the world would not be the same,” Oppenheimer remembered in 1965. “A few people laughed, a few people cried. Most people were silent. I remembered the line from the Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad Gita; Vishnu is trying to persuade the Prince that he should do his duty and, to impress him, takes on his multi-armed form and says, ‘Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.'” The translation’s grammatical archaism made it even more powerful, resonating with lines in Tennyson (“I am become a name, for always roaming with a hungry heart”), Shakespeare (“I am come to know your pleasure”), and the Bible (“I am come a light into the world, that whosoever believeth on me should not abide in darkness”).

This line is also mentioned in his New York Times obituary and in this Wired news story

As Oppenheimer correctly notes in his later account, the perfect tenses, in modern usage formed only with the auxiliary verb "to have" ("I have become Death") once used the auxiliary to be with some verbs, including "to become" and "to come" ("I am come at your word"). Many of these archaic forms are included in well-known quotations, and so remain in limited use. People sometimes use such constructions to imitate the tone of or parody such older usages.

Some sources state that Oppenheimer identified the line as a quote when he spoke it on the occasion of the first atomic bomb test. Some say that Oppenheimer who had studied Sanskrit (the original language of the Bhagavad Gita) made the translation, others that he spoke the line as it his teacher had translated it.

In any case Oppenheimer used an old form of the Present Perfect in line with the treatment of the King James Bible and other important older texts.

  • Where can I learn about these kinds of archaic forms? Can you point out some reference or websites?
    – Michael
    Apr 3, 2022 at 17:08
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    @Michael You might try starting with the Wikipedia article This cites Joan Bybee, Revere Perkins, William Pagliuca, The Evolution of Grammar: Tense, Aspect, and Modality in the Languages of the World, University of Chicago Press, 1994 as authority for the be-forms of he perfect tenses. Apr 4, 2022 at 4:57

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