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 Every concept car comes with a caveat: As the design moves to production, certain features will be dropped to reduce cost, simplify manufacturing, or kowtow to regulations. Wired, "Forget Driving. You’ll Wish You Could Watch TV in This Car," 10 Sep. 2019 And yet one Western leader seems quite taken with the idea of forcing private firms to kowtow. Fortune, "Can Trump ‘Order’ US Firms Out of China? Should He? — CEO Daily," 24 Aug. 2019 Certainly, Cathay won't be the last company to kowtow to Beijing. Eamon Barrett, Fortune, "Cathay Pacific Vowed Not to Keep Staff From Hong Kong’s Protests. Then Beijing Intervened," 12 Aug. 2019 Just as appearing to stand up to the authorities can burnish corporate reputations, seeming to kowtow to them can do harm. The Economist, "Taking sides in Hong Kong’s protests presents opportunities for firms," 18 July 2019 Actors end up kowtowing to producers and directors. Matt Trueman, New York Times, "He’s the Producer. She’s the Talent. Who Owns the Hit Record?," 18 Apr. 2018 But the craven bunch on Capitol Hill are too busy kowtowing to the NRA to do much of anything. Washington Post, "Putting kids last: A time-honored Washington tradition," 15 Mar. 2018 Driven by a half century of feminist scholarship and further propelled by the #MeToo movement, her essay helps us see the depth of female friendship and of women’s refusal to kowtow to men in Shakespeare’s plays. James Shapiro, The Atlantic, "Shakespeare Wrote Insightfully About Women. That Doesn’t Mean He Was One.," 8 June 2019 But does that indicate William Barr would kowtow to the President? Senators are going to try to find out. Sadie Gurman, WSJ, "Attorney General Nominee Barr Helped Navigate CIA Through Rocky Times With Congress," 12 Feb. 2019 Recent Examples on the Web: Noun The charitable explanation for this kowtow to the Kremlin is that Mr. Trump can’t get past his fury that critics claim his election was tainted by Russian interference. The Editorial Board, WSJ, "The Trump First Doctrine," 16 July 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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Statistics for kowtow

Last Updated

22 Sep 2019

Time Traveler for kowtow

The first known use of kowtow was in 1804

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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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something of little or no value

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