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


you can try kowtowing to the boss, but he'll see right through you

Recent Examples on the Web: Verb

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 The leftist leader could face strong domestic opposition if he is seen as kowtowing to Mr. Trump in implementing the plan, details of which remain sketchy. Juan Montes, WSJ, "Caravan’s Stymied Passage Leaves Migrant Issue Boiling," 28 Dec. 2018 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 Whether consciously or not, the physician and patient are enacting a ritual of domination and submission, much like the kowtowing required in the presence of a Chinese emperor. Kevin Canfield, San Francisco Chronicle, "‘Natural Causes,’ by Barbara Ehrenreich," 3 May 2018 It won’t be bullied: There are few countries around the world that refuse to kowtow to American pressure. Charlie Campbell / Beijing, Time, "Why Singapore? 6 Reasons the Asian City-State Is Perfect for the Trump-Kim Summit," 8 June 2018 Many people consider The Fiji Times to be the last independent media voice in a country where many news outlets kowtow to the government. Washington Post, "Fiji finds 4 not guilty of sedition in media freedom case," 22 May 2018 But Miuccia Prada is above kowtowing to current trends. Steff Yotka, Vogue, "Prada’s New Shoe Is the Ultimate ’90s Throwback," 5 May 2018

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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Last Updated

16 Jun 2019

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The first known use of kowtow was in 1804

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More Definitions for kowtow



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

Rhyming Dictionary: Words that rhyme with kowtow

Thesaurus: All synonyms and antonyms for kowtow

Spanish Central: Translation of kowtow

Britannica.com: Encyclopedia article about kowtow

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having a desire to acquire more things

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