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?

  • 4
    it does sound racist, you should report that officer.
    – P. O.
    Jan 12, 2017 at 3:17
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    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, 2017 at 3:23
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    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? Jan 12, 2017 at 3:47
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    I'm a bit puzzled a) that an application form for a driving licence asked for details of skin colouring - don't you have to supply a photo anyway? and b) that an "officer" was on hand to help you fill it in. What exactly did the form ask for that "sallow" was the suggested answer? Reminds me of the visitor immigration form for the old apartheid South Africa where it asked for "race". Many a wag used to write "human".
    – WS2
    Jan 12, 2017 at 10:47
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    what was the label for the blank? race? ethnicity? skin color?
    – user175542
    Jan 13, 2017 at 20:25

5 Answers 5


In Ireland, we use it as a compliment. If you're not white as a sheet (like most of us) and have a slightly darker skin tone / can tan in the sun rather than burn, you might have sallow skin. There are a lot of Irish people in in Australia so maybe he meant it the same way. Hopefully, anyway. I only learnt that it could mean jaundiced but we would just say jaundiced or yellow in that case.

  • Good deduction. Have you a reference or two showing the unmarked-for-sickness usage in Ireland, 444? Oct 6 at 11:47

I am in Australia and I have always used sallow for a desirable, healthy, olive, easily tanned complexion and not til now did I know it was defined as 'sickly'!! I have a lot of Irish ancestry, so my definition must have come from those influences. I doubt it was intended to be racist.

  • Have you a definition from an Australian-English focused dictionary, 488? All the dictionaries usually cited here on ELU (they're mainly UK- and US-usage–driven) add the 'sickly / unhealthy-looking' caveat. Oct 6 at 11:50

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?

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    "It seems 'sallow complexion' is a common description of many people." Of many dead people, yes. Jan 12, 2017 at 9:18
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    @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, 2017 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, 2017 at 22:43
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    @flith Well, the context is Australia's vernacular.
    – Sam Lehman
    Jan 14, 2017 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)

  • Sensible research. I'd guess, though, that the use of 'sallow' has dropped markedly in the US, but probably not in Australia. Oct 6 at 11:46

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.

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