Definitions

from The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, 4th Edition

  • intransitive v. To kneel and touch the forehead to the ground in expression of deep respect, worship, or submission, as formerly done in China.
  • intransitive v. To show servile deference. See Synonyms at fawn1.
  • n. The act of kneeling and touching the forehead to the ground.
  • n. An obsequious act.

from Wiktionary, Creative Commons Attribution/Share-Alike License

  • v. To kneel and bow low enough to touch one’s forehead to the ground.
  • v. To bow very deeply.
  • v. To act in a very submissive manner.
  • n. The act of kowtowing.

from the GNU version of the Collaborative International Dictionary of English

  • n. The prostration made by mandarins and others to their superiors, either as homage or worship, by knocking the forehead on the ground; same as kotow. There are degrees in the rite, the highest being expressed by three knockings.
  • intransitive v. To perform the kowtow. Same as kotow

from The Century Dictionary and Cyclopedia

  • See kotow.

from WordNet 3.0 Copyright 2006 by Princeton University. All rights reserved.

  • n. a former Chinese custom of touching the ground with the forehead as a sign of respect or submission
  • v. try to gain favor by cringing or flattering
  • v. bend the knees and bow in a servile manner

Etymologies

From Chinese (Mandarin) kòu tóu, a kowtow : kòu, to knock + tóu, head.
(American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition)
From Cantonese 叩頭 / 叩头 (kau3 tau4) kau3 ‘knock’ + tau4 ‘head’; Chinese Mandarin 叩頭 / 叩头 (kòutóu) kòu ‘knock’ + tóu ‘head’. (Wiktionary)

Examples

  • They were already prepared to release those two idiots as soon as they could get even a symbolic kowtow from the imperialists.

    Kim Jong Il pardons and orders release of 2 U.S. journalists

  • As most Americans see it, their government is not asking other nations to "kowtow" - but rather to enter into a security partnership to avert terror attacks.

    BBC News - Home

  • Yueyue's parents were photographed meeting the woman, bowing down in a ritual 'kowtow' - a public expression of gratitude that she had stopped to help their daughter when so many others had walked on by.

    Telegraph.co.uk - Telegraph online, Daily Telegraph and Sunday Telegraph

  • Page views per day reached over 10,000 during the Qingming festival, when Chinese families traditionally visit their relatives 'gravesites and practice rituals such as kowtow and money offering.

    Boom Times For Chinese Internet Start-Ups

  • Tchitcherine tracks mud off the street into the Center, gets a blush from Luba, a kind of kowtow and mopflourish from the comical Chinese swamper Chu Piang, unreadable stares from an early pupil or two.

    Gravity's Rainbow

  • Only now, in the rush of 'modern progress,' is the doffing of the hat taking the place of the 'kowtow'

    Myths and Legends of China

  • I would like to compliment #2 for a most cromulent use of the word 'kowtow'

    Center for American Progress Action Fund

  • He said some parts of the security programme were "completely redundant" and that the UK should not "kowtow" to the Americans every time the US wanted something done.

    Telegraph.co.uk - Telegraph online, Daily Telegraph and Sunday Telegraph

  • His ascension to the presidency came in a surprise 2002 election win on a campaign pledge not to "kowtow" to the United States, one that resonated with young voters.

    Latest Headlines - ABC 7 News

  • The Democrats are trying to place Republicans in a bind by giving them a false choice: They can "kowtow" to Limbaugh, or they can denounce him as outside the realm of legitimate political discourse.

    National Review Online

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  • LION
    (sings)
    ...I'd click my heel
    All the trees would kneel
    And the mountains bow
    And the bulls kowtow

    July 9, 2010