kow·​tow | \ (ˌ)kau̇-ˈtau̇ How to pronounce kowtow (audio) , ˈkau̇-ˌtau̇ \
kowtowed; kowtowing; kowtows

Definition of kowtow

 (Entry 1 of 2)

intransitive verb

1 : to show obsequious deference : fawn kowtows to the boss
2 : to kneel and touch the forehead to the ground in token of homage, worship, or deep respect



Definition of kowtow (Entry 2 of 2)

: an act of kowtowing

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Did You Know?


Kowtow originated as a noun referring to the act of kneeling and touching one's head to the ground as a salute or act of worship to a revered authority. In traditional China this ritual was performed by commoners making requests to the local magistrate, by the emperor to the shrine of Confucius, or by foreign representatives appearing before the emperor to establish trade relations. (In the late 18th century, some Western nations resisted performing the ritual, which acknowledged the Chinese emperor as the "son of heaven.") The word kowtow derives from Chinese "koutou," formed by combining the verb "kou" ("to knock") with the noun "tou" ("head"). The noun had arrived in English by 1804, and the earliest evidence for the verb dates from 1826.

Examples of kowtow in a Sentence

Verb you can try kowtowing to the boss, but he'll see right through you
Recent Examples on the Web: Verb To her surprise, though, Julius has changed and has stopped kowtowing to the rich and powerful. Chancellor Agard, EW.com, "The Good Fight recap: The gang tries to resist sexual tension and draws dots," 14 May 2020 But if American basketball fans believe the NBA is kowtowing to Chinese authorities in this dispute, that could damage the league's reputation with fans and some American sponsors. Chris Isidore, CNN, "How one tweet put the NBA in a no-win situation in China," 8 Oct. 2019 It is routinely accused of kowtowing to China, including in its dealings with Taiwan. Annabelle Timsit, Quartz, "The world’s leaders are engaged in a familiar debate: public health or sovereignty?," 24 Apr. 2020 It is often accused of kowtowing to its donors — from powerful players like the United States and China to private funders like the Gates Foundation. Selam Gebrekidan, New York Times, "The World Has a Plan to Fight Coronavirus. Most Countries Are Not Using it.," 12 Mar. 2020 Critics have accused Tedros of kowtowing to Beijing and overlooking major shortcomings in its handling of the crisis, including the initial response to the outbreak. Andrew Joseph, STAT, "The global responders: Who is leading the charge against the coronavirus outbreak," 17 Feb. 2020 Kudos to those who refused to kowtow to the fears that drunkards might declare the tree to be their own private Everest. al, "Masked Observer declares Mobile ‘THE place for Mardi Gras’," 5 Feb. 2020 But outcry against the company for kowtowing to the Chinese government has been harsh. Patrick Shanley, The Hollywood Reporter, "Former Microsoft Exec Joins Blizzard Entertainment," 24 Oct. 2019 Many people consider the Fiji Times to be the last independent media voice in a country where many news outlets kowtow to the government. Fox News, "Fiji 4 await verdict in case that tests press freedoms," 17 May 2018

These example sentences are selected automatically from various online news sources to reflect current usage of the word 'kowtow.' Views expressed in the examples do not represent the opinion of Merriam-Webster or its editors. Send us feedback.

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First Known Use of kowtow


1826, in the meaning defined at sense 1


1804, in the meaning defined above

History and Etymology for kowtow

Noun and Verb

Chinese (Beijing) kòutóu, from kòu to knock + tóu head

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Time Traveler for kowtow

Time Traveler

The first known use of kowtow was in 1804

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Last Updated

15 Jun 2020

Cite this Entry

“Kowtow.” Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/kowtow. Accessed 8 Aug. 2020.

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More Definitions for kowtow


How to pronounce kowtow (audio)

English Language Learners Definition of kowtow

informal + disapproving : to agree too easily or eagerly to do what someone else wants you to do : to obey someone with power in a way that seems weak


kow·​tow | \ kau̇-ˈtau̇, ˈkau̇-ˌtau̇ \
kowtowed; kowtowing

Kids Definition of kowtow

: to obey a person in a position of power in a way that seems weak : show overly respectful attention "… don't expect me to kowtow to you, mortal, just because old Barnacle-Beard is your father."— Rick Riordan, The Lightning Thief

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More from Merriam-Webster on kowtow

Thesaurus: All synonyms and antonyms for kowtow

Rhyming Dictionary: Words that rhyme with kowtow

Spanish Central: Translation of kowtow

Britannica.com: Encyclopedia article about kowtow

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