This week’s idiom is, “Ne pas mélanger les torchons et les serviettes.”
Literally translated as, “not mixing dishtowels with napkins,” it means treating things or people differently according to their perceived value or class, but also, more generally, not mixing things of different kinds, with the implication that some of those things are superior to the others.
It is a colloquial expression that usually appears as “Il ne faut pas mélanger les torchons et les serviettes” or “On ne mélange pas les torchons et les serviettes” (one mustn’t/doesn’t mix dishtowels with napkins). It can be delivered either earnestly or ironically, to deride a person’s or an institution’s narrowmindedness.
Example: “Pierre Bergé a refusé que les portraits d’Yves Saint Laurent figurent aux côtés d’autres portraits de couturiers dans l’exposition d’Andy Warhol au Grand Palais. « Il ne faut pas mélanger les torchons et les serviettes » a-t-il déclaré avant de demander que les tableaux soient déplacés dans la section des artistes.”
(Pierre Bergé refused to have Yves Saint Laurent’s portraits appear side by side with other fashion designers in the Warhol exhibition at the Grand Palais. “One mustn’t mix dishtowels with napkins,” he said, before asking to have the paintings moved to the artists section.) [This example is slightly rephrased from a recent article in L'Express Styles.]
Listen to the idiom and example read aloud:
(If no player appears, here’s a link to the audio file.)
This expression relies on the symbolic opposition between the dishtowel, seen here as a lowly rag used for domestic chores, and the napkin, a much more distinguished piece of cloth that is an integral part of an elegant table setting. The classist — though now generally outdated — implication was that the former was in the realm of servants, while the latter belonged to the world of their employers and their social life. It would then have been improper to wash or put away the two together.
(For the record, we keep the clean dishtowels and everyday (cloth) napkins in the same place, while the napkins we use for guests live in a separate drawer — but it’s more for the sake of convenience than anything else.)