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To prostrate, as Collins dictionary says, means:

"If you prostrate yourself, you lie down flat on the ground, on your front, usually to show respect for God or a person in authority"

On the other hand, when we refer to the prostration done by people of some religious communities, we often picture a slightly different position (see pictures below).

enter image description here enter image description here

Clearly, in these pictures, the body is not lying down flat on the ground but curled up. So, the questions are:

  • If, without any context, I just say that a man prostrated himself on the ground, what prostration would you picture?
  • If, as Collins dictionary says, a prostration generally refers to a flat position, how would you describe the specific type of prostration shown in the pictures (without mentioning this or that specific religious community or term)?

Addendum: I found this description of a work of art that says "two men are kneeling prostrate before a statue". The picture is quite dark, but the two men looked in the same position as the one described here. It's from the British Museum by the way, so it should be reliable. What do you think of it?

Second addendum: This ngram search tells us that probably "to be prostrate on one's knees" is even more used. So, for instance, "He was prostrate on his knees".

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  • Without context, it is the first that would come to mind if you said “prostrate”, it is closer to the image of one flinging oneself to the floor. Both are extreme forms of kneeling, with one's head to the floor
    – djs
    Commented Aug 31, 2022 at 12:41
  • A full bow: learnreligions.com/….
    – Lambie
    Commented Nov 4, 2022 at 16:15

2 Answers 2

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English freely borrows words for specific things from other cultures.

Prostration would be a general term. You would use this if writing for a general audience, especially if the exact position of the knees and hands is not particularly relevant.

For this specific posture in Muslim prayer the word Sujud or Sujood can be used. For the similar posture adopted in Japanese culture Dogeza can be used.

There is no specific unborrowed English word for this posture that distinguishes it from other forms of protration.

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  • Thanks for your answer, but the picture with the prostrating woman is taken from a Buddhist article. I intentionally put the pictures of different communities to seek a general way to describe the type of prostration being referred to.
    – Fra
    Commented Aug 31, 2022 at 12:24
  • 1
    Yes. "Prostration" would be the general term to use, if writing for a general audience. If you need to describe the particular position of the knees the you need to describe it in a full sentence. What is your purpose? To teach someone how to do it or to describe the attitude of a person who is doing it.
    – James K
    Commented Aug 31, 2022 at 12:40
  • I just want to describe that position (not flat on the ground) without any known religious reference. By the way, I added a possible answer in the OP.
    – Fra
    Commented Aug 31, 2022 at 12:48
  • I think prostation goes too far. I'm seeing full bow.
    – Lambie
    Commented Nov 4, 2022 at 16:15
  • 1
    @MichaelHarvey I only know the metaphorical meaning: He was kowtowing to his boss. Basically, kissing his arse.
    – Lambie
    Commented Feb 28 at 21:17
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The words in a language generally reflect the environment, culture and practices of the society that uses it.

English is the language of a society that was mainly Christian, and in worship Christians normally kneel and/or bow their heads during prayer, but do not bow their bodies. Because of this, there is no specific word to describe the kneel-and-bow-body position used by Muslims for prayer.

Posts like this one describe the position as bowing, but this is not unambiguous because bowing also describes bending at the waist while standing. As you mentioned, prostration is completely incorrect because the body must be flat on the floor.

If you wanted to describe this position accurately in English, you would say something like "kneel and bow the body and head until the head touches the floor, with the hands flat on the floor beside the head."

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