Kowtow, which describes the act of kneeling and touching one’s head to the ground to show respect, used to be a custom in Chinese culture. Now it refers to acting like you're doing that, whether you actually bow or not.

Kowtow is derived from the Chinese word k’o-t’ou, which literally means “knock the head.” As a verb, kowtow has the sense of “sucking up” or "flattering." Maybe you’re wondering when it would be appropriate to kowtow. The answer? When you want to worship, show respect, gain favor, or flatter. You might need to kowtow to your teacher if you failed a test, but if you kowtow to all your neighbor's requests, you might wind up mowing his lawn all summer.

Definitions of kowtow

v bend the knees and bow in a servile manner

genuflect, scrape
Type of:
bend the head or the upper part of the body in a gesture of respect or greeting

v try to gain favor by cringing or flattering

“He is always kowtowing to his boss”
bootlick, fawn, kotow, suck up, toady, truckle
court favor, court favour, curry favor, curry favour
seek favor by fawning or flattery
Type of:
blandish, flatter
praise somewhat dishonestly

n a former Chinese custom of touching the ground with the forehead as a sign of respect or submission

Type of:
bow, bowing, obeisance
bending the head or body or knee as a sign of reverence or submission or shame or greeting

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