Ne pas mélanger les torchons et les serviettes


This is part of a series on French idiomatic expressions that relate to food. Browse the list of idioms featured so far.

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 The classist — though now generally outdated — implication was that the former was in the realm of servants, while the latter belonged to the world of their employers and their social life.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.)

  • Sort of like comparing apples and oranges, except with dishtowels and napkins there’s the implication that one is definitely better than the other.

  • Actually, torchon means more rag than dishtowel, so its even lower. I use my torchon to clean up my counters and my stovetop when I’m done cooking. Dishtowel would be “linge à vaisselle”.

    But then again, Foie gras au torchon is a luxurious delicacy. A peice of foie gras, ‘mi-cuit’, that’s been rolled in a torchon.

  • You gotta love expressions that begin with “One mustn’t”

  • And also. Serviette means more towel than napkin. Serviette de table is a napkin.

    So my translation would be.

    One shouldn’t mix rags and towels. (the distinction, for me, comes mores from the fact that a rag is inhrently dirty as a towel is something you keep clean).

  • SugarApple – There is actually a near-direct French equivalent for that one: comparer des choux et des carottes (comparing cabbages and carrots).

    Philippe-A – Perhaps it’s a regional (or personal) thing, but for instance the mediadico dictionary says:
    Serviette: Linge dont on se sert pour la toilette ou à table. (Cloth used for washing oneself or at the table.)
    Torchon: Serviette de grosse toile utilisée pour essuyer la vaisselle. (Thick canvas cloth used to wipe dishes dry.)

  • Pattie

    Thank you for these blogs on idioms, Chlotilde–I’m a French teacher and these are delightful gems in the classroom. In addition, I learn a lot from the comments about them!

  • Thank you so much for great thought. This is very helpful and remind me about how to treat people and things.

    Thanks again.

    see you next post!

  • Whatever the precise semantics of various cloths – thanks so much for keeping up this series, so intriguing every time.

  • I love these idioms that you post. So interesting!

  • and there’s ‘sorting the sheep from the goats’it’s kind of the opposite way round as they are already mixed.

  • Bravo pour toutes ces notes d’humour! pas toujours facile de traduire toutes les nuances de notre langue…

  • sheila

    Oh my…this explains it all…my partner’s french who has admonished me about using a dish towel for a serviette…I did it once, and only once and won’t do it again!

  • J’adore cette expression! Et toutes les expressions que vous nous donnez!!

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