I’d like ask about the sentence from The Cardboard Box by Conan Doyle.

I saw a deal of my sister-in-law, Sarah. She was a fine tall woman, black and quick and fierce, with a proud way of carrying her head,

I don’t know how to interpret the word “black” in the above. Is this word about her appearance? Or her disposition? I don’t think this Sarah is ethnically black, since such things never mentioned throughout the story, nor about her two sisters too for that matter. So it meant Sarah’s eyes or hair was black, maybe? But you often use “dark” in such a case, don’t you? If it’s about her personality, I found in a dictionary black can mean “bad, malicious, sour”, is this the case here? I don’t know. Could someone tell me? Thanks.

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    There's no way of knowing from the single sentence. It's almost certainly talking about her skin colour or her disposition. If it were talking about her hair, her hair would have been mentioned. Commented Apr 29, 2020 at 4:03
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    Not necessarily. In the past in England, black often meant black-haired. Commented Apr 29, 2020 at 8:05

1 Answer 1


Since it's written by Doyle, at the time he was living, you can be pretty sure she was not a negro.

Coloured people were quite unusual in the streets of England at the time - compared to nowadays. If she had been what we would call black now, he would have said so, and maybe with words no longer in polite usage.

In that century someone with jet black hair, dark eyes and maybe sallow skin too, would be described as black. Think also of Black Irish.

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