Photo © Tristan Savatier - http://loupiote.com/ - Used by Permission
Beth and I have noticed a lot of "cow towing" going on in the blogosphere recently, and it really must stop.
First I read a blog that began by complaining that a highly-placed politician was cow towing to foreign interests. Most recently Beth had an anonymous commenter accuse this same highly-placed politician of "cowtowing (one word this time) to just about every socialist dictator in existence". And there were a few other instances in between those two where I saw the words cow tow. So we have decided that it is time to do a brief study of the correct spelling and use of the term kow tow.
Kowtow (also koutau or kautau) is from the Mandarin Chinese kòu tóu, and it means, literally, "to knock head." From my own research I found that the noun came into general use sometime between 1795 and 1805 and was the custom of touching one's forehead to the ground to show respect or submission -- to quite literally "knock" one's "head" on the ground.
The figurative use of the term as a verb came into use in 1826, and it is as that figurative use of "acting in an obsequious manner" (genuflect, scrape, bootlick, brownnose) that the recent blogger and anonymous commenter were trying to use the term. This is not a political blog, so I am not going to get into a discussion of their opinions or arguments, but I will say that because they (and the other examples I read) used the spelling cow tow, I have no idea what point they were really trying to make and remember nothing else that they wrote. When I first read the blog entry mentioned in my second paragraph I couldn't get past the words cow tow. I couldn't have taken the blogger seriously on anything else written in that entry. I even had to go to Beth's blog to re-read the Anonymous comment to get the quote used above because all I could remember about it was that Anonymous had spelled kowtow wrong.
(Side note to bloggers who want to be taken seriously on serious subjects: If you are trying to make a valid point to readers who may not share your opinions, please try to use correct usage and spelling if at all possible.)
I found the history of the cultural and religious use of kowtow very interesting. Britannica.com says that it was
"the act of supplication made by an inferior to his superior by kneeling and knocking his head to the floor. This prostration ceremony was most commonly used in religious worship, by commoners who came to make a request of the local district magistrate, and by officials and representatives of foreign powers who came into the presence of the emperor. By the Ming period (1368-1644), the ritual, especially as made to the shrine of Confucius by the emperor and to the emperor by his officials and foreign envoys, involved "three kneelings and nine prostrations."
And the difference between kneelings and prostrations? The three kneelings were done from a standing position, and the prostrations were kowtows performed while kneeling.
There were different grades of kowtow used depending on the situation. The emperor's subjects were required to kowtow to him as described above. Commoners were also required to kowtow to government officials since they represented the emperor, and if they were brought before an official in a formal situation they were required to remain kneeling. By contrast, a person with a degree in the "Imperial examinations" would be allowed to sit down after performing a kowtow. Children were required to kowtow to their elderly ancestors, especially on special occasions. It was even traditionally required that newly married couples kowtow to both sets of parents at their wedding ceremony, to acknowledge the debt owed to the parents for their nurturing.
The word kowtow came into English in the early 19th century and described the bow itself. Very soon, however, it came to mean any groveling or abject submission, and that is how it is usually used today. A recent BBC News article reported that the former president of Pakistan had accused the Afghan president of kow-towing to India.
In modern times the kowtow is still performed in Buddhist religious ceremonies. It is not known as kowtowing, however, but as "worship with the crown" (head) or "casting the five limbs to the earth". It has all but been replaced by the standing bow in social and formal situations today.
As far as I can find out, the term is most often spelled as one word, kowtow, but it is also acceptable to spell it as two words, kow tow, or with a hyphen, kow-tow. And the "tow" part is never pronounced like "toe", but like "cow".
In researching this word I found several interesting web sites, and also learned a lot about the May Fourth Movement. You may find this site of interest, and The Word Detective is always worth reading.
Many thanks to Tristan Savatier for use of the oh-so-appropriate photo above. I shouted with glee when I saw that photograph!
Coming soon another misunderstood and misused term we've noticed recently: toeing the line! Be sure to tune in for that one!