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Mardi Gras 101

From the outside it looks like the most free-form, free-floating party in America, but don't let appearances fool you -- the *real* Mardi Gras has special rules, strange customs and a language all its own. Here's a brief vocabulary lesson:

Krewes -- Krewes are the leaders of New Orleans' society, and they ride floats, throw balls and hold other events during the season. They often wear masks to keep their identity  secret -- a tradition dating back to Roman times.

Rex -- Every parade has a king, but there is only one king of carnival, and that is "Rex." Rex's parade is the climax of Mardi Gras.

Zulu -- The Zulu parade is the first parade on Mardi Gras morning. Zulu, or the oldest African-American krewe, is one of the most recognized krewes in New Orleans, with its first recorded reference in 1909.

Mardi Gras -- French for "Fat Tuesday," the final and most elaborate day of the Carnival season.

Lundi Gras -- French for "Fat Monday," the day before "Mardi Gras" when Rex meets Zulu to kick-off Tuesday's celebration

Throws-- stuff thrown off the floats to the spectators. Tradionally, it's coins and beads. In recent years, stuffed animals, plastic drink cups and other trinkets and toys have been added. Spectators develop special yells and techniques for collecting the most throws.

Doubloon -- a plastic coin with the "krewes" name on one side and the parade theme on the other.

Flambeauxs -- At the night parades, you'll see flambeaux, or torch, carriers. They are "keepers of the light" and light the way for parades.

Neutral Ground -- Some of the revellers are standing on what most of us would call the "median strip"in the road. But here it's called the "neutral ground." When the city was divided between the French and Americans, it was the one place where the two sides would meet peacefully.

And if there is one word they would like to strike out of their vocabulary, even for just a few hours -- it's "Katrina."

Editor's note: Hoda wrote more about this first Mardi Gras after Katrina in Dateline's blog. You can read it, and watch a web-exclusive video log about her return to New Orleans by clicking here.