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 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 Ironically, these are the very people talking about P.C. who can't stand the articulation of an unapologetic black voice that doesn't kowtow or cower to them. Washington Post, "Jay-Z is ‘Robert Frost with a Brooklyn accent,’ a Georgetown professor writes in his new book," 2 Jan. 2020 Rows blaze over athletes kowtowing to China, naval docking rights and alleged censorship on TikTok, a Chinese app used by teenagers worldwide. The Economist, "The superpower split Don’t be fooled by the trade deal between America and China," 2 Jan. 2020 An angry Macron pointed out the cost of the president’s kowtow to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, an autocrat whom the president admires. Trudy Rubin, Twin Cities, "Trudy Rubin: Why the laughter at Trump at the NATO conference wasn’t funny," 6 Dec. 2019 One of the most intriguing threads in the book concerns the woman’s ingrate of a daughter, to whom the Cheffe nonetheless kowtows, sending love in her child’s direction even when that child undermines her in every way. Bethanne Patrick, Washington Post, "In Marie NDiaye’s ‘The Cheffe,’ a genius in the kitchen tries to make it in a man’s world," 18 Nov. 2019 Instead, the Astros kowtowed to their star pitcher and, without any evidence, disparaged the reporter Verlander found so bothersome. Nancy Armour, USA TODAY, "Opinion: MLB needs to address Houston Astros' troubling history of toxic behavior," 22 Oct. 2019 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 The company was met with backlash and accused of kowtowing to the Chinese government. Patrick Shanley, The Hollywood Reporter, "BlizzCon Fan Event Swarmed by Pro-Hong Kong Protesters," 1 Nov. 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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Time Traveler for kowtow

Time Traveler

The first known use of kowtow was in 1804

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Last Updated

10 Feb 2020

Cite this Entry

“Kowtow.” Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/kowtowing. Accessed 17 Feb. 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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