He prostrated himself before his teachers

He took them to a gourmet cafe but they did not particularly enjoy the food

May 15, 2023 08:30 am | Updated 08:30 am IST

Know your English

Know your English | Photo Credit: iStockphoto

What is the difference between ‘kowtow’ and ‘prostrate’? (R. Sivakumar, Chennai)

First, let us deal with the pronunciation of ‘kowtow’. The two syllables rhyme with ‘how’, ‘cow and ‘now’; the word is pronounced ‘cow-TOW’ with the stress on the second syllable. It comes from the Chinese ‘k’o-t’ou’ meaning ‘knock the head’. When you ‘kowtow’, you go down on your knees and touch the ground/floor with your forehead. The common man in China used to show his respect to those in power by performing this act. Nowadays, in everyday conversation, ‘kowtow’ is mostly used as a verb. When you accuse someone of ‘kowtowing’ to their boss, what you are suggesting is that he is a pushover — he shows too much respect for the person in power, does what he has been asked to without raising any questions. The word also carries the suggestion that the individual is eager to please in order to gain something.

The Management is unlikely to kowtow to our demands.

You may be Geetha’s boss. But she’s unlikely to kowtow to you or anybody else.

‘Prostrate’ is what most men do when they visit a temple. When you ‘prostrate’, you lie flat on the ground, face down, with your arms stretched out. Unlike in the case of ‘kowtow’, the entire front portion of the body is in contact with the ground. The word comes from the Latin ‘prostratus’ meaning ‘thrown down’. Like ‘kowtow’, you usually ‘prostrate’ to someone in order to show your respect for the individual. ‘Prostrate’, like ‘kowtow’, has a figurative meaning; when used as a verb, it means helpless or defenceless. If you are ‘prostrate with grief’, you are so overwhelmed that you are incapable of doing anything. You just lie around, too shocked to do anything.

Several young men prostrated themselves before the party leader.

Tina was prostrate with grief after failing the test.

How is the word ‘gourmet’ pronounced? (Anu Mittal, Gurgoan)

There seem to be different ways of pronouncing this word. I will deal with only two here. The British tend to rhyme the first syllable (gour) with words like ‘sure’, ‘cure’ and ‘poor’, while the Americans tend to pronounce the ‘ou’ like the ‘oo’ in ‘pool’, ‘fool’, and ‘tool’. Both pronounce the second syllable like the word ‘may’. The word, which comes from the Old French ‘groume’ meaning ‘wine taster’, can be pronounced ‘GUE-may’ or ‘GUUR-may’. In both cases, the stress is on the first syllable. A ‘gourmet’ is a foodie, but unlike the ordinary foodie who enjoys eating just about anything, this individual mostly focuses on high quality food; he is not someone who is easily pleased. Books on usage suggest that this individual is not only a connoisseur of good food, but also of vintage wines. He is very knowledgeable about the various dishes he is about to order; therefore, does not hesitate to give the chef precise instructions about how they are to be made. A gourmet is more interested in the quality of food than in the quantity.

When I go out with Vinay, I really don’t get a chance to choose what I want. He’s a gourmet, and insists on ordering the food.

I don’t really enjoy going to the so-called gourmet restaurants.


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