English Language & Usage Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts. Join them; it only takes a minute:

Sign up
Here's how it works:
  1. Anybody can ask a question
  2. Anybody can answer
  3. The best answers are voted up and rise to the top

In Isaac Asimov's Foundation series, in several places he describes people having a "sallow complexion".

According to Collins dictionary:


(esp of human skin) of an unhealthy pale or yellowish colour

Unfortunately I'm not a native English speaker, and from the context I can't decide whether he means a very pale Caucasian or rather an Asian.

Not that it really matters for the comprehension of the story, but at first sight I thought it was a misspelling of shallow and this aroused my curiosity, now I have to find out.

share|improve this question
Yellowish does not mean Asian. I don’t know why you would think he meant either. It is most likely that he simply meant someone who had an unhealthy complexion, but without actual examples, we have no idea. – tchrist Apr 18 '13 at 23:57
Consider how sometimes it means unhealthy and other times of exotic race: “He was a lean, starved, haggard thing, all bones and tight-drawn sallow skin.” “The brown mustache, the knobby chin, the sallow yellowed flesh and small dark eyes, all melted.” “Blood rose in his cheeks until they were no longer sallow but brown and held the look of life.” “These men were short and broad, long and strong in the arm; their skins were swart or sallow, and their hair was dark as were their eyes.” “...half a dozen large ill-favoured men lounging against the inn-wall; they were squint-eyed and sallow-faced.” – tchrist Apr 19 '13 at 0:06
@tchrist Because in other places he uses "complexion" to describe other ethnic groups (eg. "dark complexion" comes to my mind but there are probably other examples) so I assumed "sallow complexion" was used in the same sense. – syam Apr 19 '13 at 0:07
@tchrist Ok I understand, it is really a matter of context. So RickTrapp is probably right, without further context than just the author and era he probably refers to an unhealthy appearance. Thanks for the help. :) – syam Apr 19 '13 at 0:09
up vote 3 down vote accepted

Given the author and the era in which he wrote, you should interpret this as meaning "pale Caucasian".

share|improve this answer
Thanks, with tchrist additional explanations this now makes sense, it's all about context and since the author doesn't give any you're more than probably right. – syam Apr 19 '13 at 0:11
In hindsight, since the location is Trantor (a fully domed planet where people hardly ever see the natural sunlight), it makes sense that there are so many pale people there. – syam Apr 19 '13 at 0:17

Your Answer


By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.