Word Geek Column, July 14, 2011

WORD GEEK word of the week: kowtow

kowtow [kow TOW]

Spell to Write and Read markings:  kow tow

1.  noun

The Chinese custom of touching the forehead to the ground while performing a deep bow. The kowtow is a sign of extraordinary respect and may indicate reverence or even worship of its object.

The missionary discovered the locals had to perform the kowtow before the tribal chief in all formal ceremonies.

2. intransitive verb

The act of subservience formerly required in the Chinese Imperial Court.  The kowtow involved bowing from a kneeling position, quickly touching the forehead to the floor.  It was a sign of obeisance, loyalty, and respect.

Corporate management has so bamboozled their employees that most practically kowtow in company meetings.

Synonyms for noun: obsequiousness, fawning, bow, servility

Synonyms for verb: to fawn, cower, cringe, grovel


“Kowtow” is of Chinese origin, specifically from Mandarin, and came into English in 1804 as a noun.  It appeared in the language in 1826 as a verb, by then more as a figurative concept.  This latter meaning indicates an almost calculated act of fawning over someone with some benefit in mind, or actually cowering in someone else’s presence.  In modern parlance, kowtowing usually has a connotation of cowardice.

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