I'm non-native speaker and I live in Australia. When I filled out the form of a driving license, the officer made me fill sallow in the blank. I didn't know the meaning of sallow at that time, I did. Sallow means unhealthy, yellowish. I'm asian. Does it include racism? Or can be used often as describe complexion?

  • 3
    it does sound racist, you should report that officer. – P. O. Jan 12 '17 at 3:17
  • 2
    It's a rarely-used word in the US, and I've generally taken it to agree with the basic dictionary definition -- sickly/jaundiced looking -- as it's almost always used to describe someone who is ill. – Hot Licks Jan 12 '17 at 3:23
  • 2
    If the category was skin color, the officer likely nervously selected "sallow," as opposed to "yellow," "brown," or whatnot, in order to NOT sound racially offensive. What term would have been better? "Yellow"? "Brown"? If not, then what? – curious-proofreader Jan 12 '17 at 3:47
  • @curious-proofreader I don't know about other places, but in Maryland, the race category lumps a bunch of similar races together as categories. I'm part of the "WHITE, CAUCASIAN, ASIATIC INDIAN, ARAB" group – Sam Lehman Jan 12 '17 at 4:01
  • @Sam Lehman Sure. But what if in Australia they use "complexion" as a euphemism for race, so the category is "skin complexion." In that case, a nervous clerk might select anything OTHER than a color; or, what if the term is taken literally? Should the clerk then write something such as "lustrous," or "blemished," "pock-marked," or "spider-veined"? – curious-proofreader Jan 12 '17 at 4:14

I don't think it was racist or anything.

I did a Google search and found a bunch of death reports from The South Australian Government Gazette, Volume 2 (1908). It seems 'sallow complexion' is a common description of many people. One guy named David Stuart jumps out to me because he's a 'Native of Scotland.'

A Google image search of 'sallow complextion' results of lots of white people's photos.

Perhaps you just have a sallow complexion. Reply with a photo of yourself maybe?

  • 1
    "It seems 'sallow complexion' is a common description of many people." Of many dead people, yes. – michael.hor257k Jan 12 '17 at 9:18
  • 2
    @michael.hor257k not sure if joking or not, but check out James Lee. He's listed as sallow complexion, but his body was not found. So I highly doubt the complexions listed are for the dead bodies themselves. – Sam Lehman Jan 12 '17 at 15:19
  • I dunno. For me (a healthy-complexioned native of Scotland, as it happens) it's always meant unhealthy and a quick search backs me up, with most of the synonyms also referring to unhealthy people: sallow ˈsaləʊ/ adjective (of a person's face or complexion) of an unhealthy yellow or pale brown colour. "his skin was sallow and pitted" synonyms:yellowish, jaundiced, pallid, wan, pale, waxen, anaemic, bloodless, colourless, pasty, pasty-faced. – flith Jan 13 '17 at 22:43
  • 1
    @flith Well, the context is Australia's vernacular. – Sam Lehman Jan 14 '17 at 20:03

From doing genealogy, I noticed lots of older war draft forms in the US use words to describe skin color such as ruddy (red), sallow (yellow), white, light brown, dark brown, black. Some forms the color was hand written (1800s) and some preprinted where a check mark was used (1940s)


It is a coded way of saying that you don't look white enough to tick the white box. I don't know if Australian driving license forms collect data on race.

It is probably one of those terms invented to conceal or suppress accurate racial statistics.

I have an updated an answer at https://english.stackexchange.com/a/459136/311500 over the origin and meanings of the word sallow.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

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