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.

  • 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, 2013 at 23:57
  • 1
    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, 2013 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, 2013 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, 2013 at 0:09

2 Answers 2


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

  • 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, 2013 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, 2013 at 0:17
  • I disagree with this. See my answer below.
    – vfclists
    Aug 7, 2018 at 7:14

A sallow complexion means a yellowish complexion. It also applies to dark complexions like those of a mulatto, a gypsy, and other so designated olive and Mediterranean complexions. I suspect it also applies to the brownish-greenish complexioned Europeans who are usually depicted in Russian and Orthodox paintings of kings, biblical personalities and saints.

The fact that Europeans of the past were not as light-skinned as many of them are today is something that Europe's political and academic establishment choose to gloss over if not deny outright, but then again you see a film in which a mixed race person plays the role of a royal, such as Angel Coulby playing the role Queen Guenevere in King Arthur, or Sophie Okonedo playing the role of Margaret of Anjou in the Hollow Crown. Some of those thespians know better.

Because yellow skin is one of the features of jaundice the word became associated with illness and unhealthy looking skin even if the person was not ill or had jaundice.

Here are some quotes from the online Merriam Webster dictionary on the etymology of the word sallow - Merriam Webster Online Dictionary - Origin and Etymology of sallow

Did You Know?

There is no hint of sickliness in the etymology of sallow. The word appears in Old English as salu or salo, and could mean "dusky" or "dark" or "grayish greenish yellow." Salu (or salo) is akin to Old English sōl ("dark, dirty"), Old High German salo ("murky, dirty gray"), Old Norse sölr ("dirty"), and even Sanskrit sāra or sāla, which carries the basic meaning of "dirty gray." Sallow, however, has for much of its history been used specifically to describe the skin or complexion of one who is unwell.


Origin and Etymology of sallow

Middle English salowe, from Old English salu; akin to Old High German salo murky, Russian solovyĭ yellowish gray

My own suspicion is that sallow complexions in the yellowish-greenish sense were the mulatto offspring of the people of the paintings described above with "white" people, which is probably why many European royals were described as sallow. Henry VII, Queen Elizabeth I and her mother Anne Boleyn were described as having sallow complexions.

The effigies of Eleanor of Aquitaine and Henry II at Fontevraud Abbey
The effigies of Eleanor of Aquitaine and Henry II at Fontevraud Abbey, France.

Henry's complexion is what would be described as sallow. Eleanor's complexion would be ruddy. Sophie Okonedo playing Margaret of Anjou is not that far of the mark.

The word sallow probably referred to people who in current times would be classified as black and the term carried over the their light-skinned descendants just as today the word black is used to label people showing visible signs of black African ancestry even when they are quite light-skinned, such as Meghan Markle.

Paintings of sallow-complexioned people are usually assumed to be those of pink-skinned white people in which have darkened or deteriorated over time and need to be restored.

A good example of people in the public eye who can be described as sallow or display a sallow cast to the complexions every now and then are Viktor Orban, Maria Vladimirovna and Maria Sharapova.

  • Though the etymology is interesting, what's important is what the word was generally taken to mean at the time Asimov wrote the book. I suspect (though I haven't researched) that it had the current meaning of "unhealthy" not the historic meaning of "yellow/dark skinned". Asimov's writings aren't particularly old...
    – AndyT
    Aug 7, 2018 at 8:37
  • I beg to differ. Isaac Asimov being Jewish must have been familiar with sallow complexions. You should also note that the indigenes of areas closer to the poles such as the Inuit, the Maori and Fuegans are darker-skinned than the "Nordic" caucasians and I think those were the kind of people was Isaac Asimov was alluding to, people at the far edges of civilization.
    – vfclists
    Aug 7, 2018 at 8:53
  • "word sallow probably referred to people who in current times would be classified as black": are you saying that sallow used to be used for skin color of African-Americans? I find that hard to believe, given that all your historical data point to something like a shade of yellow.
    – Mitch
    Aug 7, 2018 at 12:53
  • @Mitch Yes indeed. Refer to the etymology I quoted from the Merriam Webster dictionary e.g Sanskrit word meaning "dirty gray" or the Russian "yellowish gray". realhistoryww.com/world_history/ancient/Misc/Crests/…, shows many Russian paintings displaying "sallow" complexions. Contemporary blacks like Paul Kagame, Lenny Henry and Bill Cosby fall into that category, contrasted with those Idris Elba and Lupita who are literally "swarthy". Contemporary Europeans assume that all such features in European paintings are the result of degraded paints. I think otherwise.
    – vfclists
    Aug 7, 2018 at 14:24
  • Check this link for an interesting take on European complexions - bit.ly/2M8RdvK. Sallow complexions are not limited to those of the far east. Some good ones would be Benedetto Gennari's paintings of Charles II and Catherine of Braganza. Consider this one of Berengaria of Navarre(ignore the warning message, it is safe). bit.ly/2nm9GH3. Now consider that her face doesn't seem to be the right color, but her palms are. If the artists could get the pigments for her palms right, why couldn't they do so for the face, given that they are the same in white people?
    – vfclists
    Aug 7, 2018 at 14:47

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