[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

Related Words for kowtow

pander, genuflect, fawn, court, flatter, bow, stoop, fold, cower, prostrate, cringe, kneel

Examples from the Web for kowtow

Contemporary Examples of kowtow

Historical Examples of kowtow

  • And yet he did not move—he made no movement save to kowtow for mercy with his head.

    Wang the Ninth

    Putnam Weale

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

    Villa Elsa

    Stuart Henry

  • Li stood there behind her and made a sign to us to kowtow to her.

    Two Years in the Forbidden City

    The Princess Der Ling

  • 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

  • I think it is perfectly frightful the way we bow down and kowtow to your beast—the great god Cash!

    Pirates' Hope

    Francis Lynde

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