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kow·​tow ˈkau̇-ˌtau̇ How to pronounce kowtow (audio)
kowtowed; kowtowing; kowtows

intransitive verb

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


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: an act of kowtowing

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").

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
In New York, some students and faculty members complained that university leaders had largely kowtowed to a Congress whose insistent questioning helped fuel the recent resignations by the presidents of Harvard and the University of Pennsylvania. Alan Blinder, New York Times, 18 Apr. 2024 This did not surprise anyone who watched Trump as president repeatedly kowtow to Russian President Vladimir Putin and express admiration for other strongmen like North Korea’s Kim Jong Il. Thomas Elias, The Mercury News, 25 Feb. 2024 Entertainment-beat reporters now insist on turning readers and everyone else into peasants, kowtowing to DIE mandates. Armond White, National Review, 2 Feb. 2024 The days of putting Americans last, of kowtowing to large corporations, of caving to woke ideology, are over. Staff Report, USA TODAY, 22 Jan. 2024 While Trump has repeatedly spoken in glowing terms about the Russian leader, Biden this week accused the former president of kowtowing to Putin. Bloomberg, Fortune, 15 Feb. 2024 History will record this as the week the GOP formally kowtowed to Vladimir Putin. Trudy Rubin, Twin Cities, 8 Feb. 2024 Predictably, the Biden administration is signaling the opposite approach — kowtowing to left-wing opinion rather than standing unambiguously with our ally, Israel. Mike Pence, National Review, 12 Jan. 2024 Compromised himself in the moment, been less than human, not having to hold on to his dignity so much, and just kowtowed to this guy and got himself home. Yvonne Villarreal, Los Angeles Times, 11 Jan. 2024

These examples are programmatically compiled from various online sources to illustrate current usage of the word 'kowtow.' Any opinions expressed in the examples do not represent those of Merriam-Webster or its editors. Send us feedback about these examples.

Word History


Noun and Verb

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

First Known Use


1826, in the meaning defined at sense 1


1804, in the meaning defined above

Time Traveler
The first known use of kowtow was in 1804


Dictionary Entries Near kowtow

Cite this Entry

“Kowtow.” Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/kowtow. Accessed 20 May. 2024.

Kids Definition


: to show overly respectful attention


from Chinese kòutóu, literally, "to bump the head (in bowing to the ground)"

More from Merriam-Webster on kowtow

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