Printable Version
Pronunciation: kæu-tæu Hear it!

Part of Speech: Verb, intransitive

Meaning: 1. To completely prostrate oneself before someone as a sign of complete submission. 2. To completely and obsequiously submit to the will of someone else, to fawn, to servilely fulfill the wishes of another.

Notes: No, today's Good Word has nothing to do with animals of the bovine persuasion. It is spelled with a K and comes from Mandarin Chinese, as the Word History will show. The participle kowtowing may be used as an adjective and an action noun: "His kowtowing to the boss unnerves me." A person guilty of kowtowing is a kowtower, not to be confused with a stack of cows (a cow-tower, something rarely seen these days in North America).

In Play: Kowtowing is not a popular activity in the US, but we all bump into it from time to time: "If Ben Dover thinks that kowtowing to the boss is going to help him get ahead in this company, he is sadly mistaken." Kowtowing should not be misconstrued as affection: "Poor Parker Carr thinks that kowtowing to Candy Cain will win her heart."

Word History: Today's word comes from Mandarin Chinese ku tu "a prostrate bow" from ku "to strike" + tu "head." Such bows were traditionally made before a powerful leader or a religious shrine. Mandarin is spoken by the largest number of people in China, about 914 million. In speaking of the 'Chinese language', however, we must keep in mind that Mandarin is but one of 14 languages spoken in China today. Although they are often called dialects, they are, in fact, distinct languages. They include Mandarin, Min Dong, Jinyu, Pu Xian, Huizhou, Min Zhong, Dungan, Gan, Hakka, Xiang, Min Bei, Min Nan, Wu, and Yue. (While we don't owe Kathy Garrett and Mike Ferguson a kowtow, we do offer them a gentle bow of gratitude for suggesting today's Good Word.)

Dr. Goodword,

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