[kou-tou, -tou, koh-]

verb (used without object)

to act in an obsequious manner; show servile deference.
to touch the forehead to the ground while kneeling, as an act of worship, reverence, apology, etc., especially in former Chinese custom.


the act of kowtowing.

Also kotow.

Origin of kowtow

First recorded in 1795–1805, kowtow is from the Chinese word kòutóu literally, knock (one's) head
Related formskow·tow·er, noun
Dictionary.com Unabridged Based on the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2019

Examples from the Web for kowtow

Contemporary Examples of kowtow

Historical Examples of kowtow

  • No matter how servile he may be at home, everyone will kowtow to him abroad.

    Villa Elsa

    Stuart Henry

  • We had to kowtow again in thanking Her Majesty for her kindness and finally she said: "Nemen tzowba" (you can go now).

    Two Years in the Forbidden City

    The Princess Der Ling

  • As he declined to kowtow before the emperor, he was not admitted to the imperial presence and the mission proved 199 abortive.

  • After a great deal of kowtow, they were planted in two chairs opposite each other in the living-room.

  • It shows what a nice disposition you have, to come to me to-day, after the way my nephew made me kowtow to you yesterday.

    Mrs. Darrell

    Foxcroft Davis

British Dictionary definitions for kowtow


verb (intr)

to touch the forehead to the ground as a sign of deference: a former Chinese custom
(often foll by to) to be servile or obsequious (towards)


the act of kowtowing
Derived Formskowtower, noun

Word Origin for kowtow

C19: from Chinese k'o t'ou, from k'o to strike, knock + t'ou head
Collins English Dictionary - Complete & Unabridged 2012 Digital Edition © William Collins Sons & Co. Ltd. 1979, 1986 © HarperCollins Publishers 1998, 2000, 2003, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2009, 2012

Word Origin and History for kowtow

also kow-tow, 1804, from Chinese k'o-t'ou custom of touching the ground with the forehead to show respect or submission, literally "knock the head," from k'o "knock, bump" + t'ou "head." The verb in the figurative sense of "act in an obsequious manner" is from 1826. Related: Kowtowed; kowtowing.

Online Etymology Dictionary, © 2010 Douglas Harper