What does kowtow mean?

Reading time: Less than 1 minute

Increase your vocabulary and you’ll make your writing much more precise. That’s why I provide a word of the week. Today’s word: kowtow.

Shortly after getting my Netflix subscription (only so I could watch the dark but fantastic show House of Cards, starring Kevin Spacey), I discovered the lighter joys of Call the Midwife.

A British period drama, set in East End London in the mid-1950s, the show is based on a popular (although previously unknown to me) trilogy by Jennifer Worth, a former midwife.

After hearing the plummy voice of Vanessa Redgrave as narrator each episode, I became interested in reading the book, which I bought for my Kindle. In all honesty, the book was a bit disappointing, compared to the TV show. But book + show, as a matching set, work quite well together.

And the book gave me today’s word of the week: kowtow. Here is the sentence in which it was used:

Fred was not going to kowtow to anyone

Of course I knew the verb meant “to defer to.” What I didn’t know was that it came from the Chinese  Chinese k’o-t’ou — the custom of touching the ground with the forehead to show respect or submission. Literally, it means “knock the head,” from k’o “knock, bump” and t’ou “head.” The verb in the figurative sense of “acting in an obsequious manner” dates to 1826.