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Dictionary definitions:

wreath an arrangement of flowers, leaves, or stems fastened in a ring and used for decoration or for laying on a grave.

garland a wreath of flowers and leaves, worn on the head or hung as a decoration.

laurel the foliage of the bay tree woven into a wreath or crown and worn on the head as an emblem of victory or mark of honor in classical times.

The definitions sound very similar to me. When is it appropriate to use each word (and when is it not)?

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2 Answers

up vote 8 down vote accepted

The choice between wreath and garland is simple: a wreath is round, while a garland is a long string.

A laurel wreath is a specific type of wreath, made of bay leaves. It is generally intended to be worn on the head. Most other wreaths are meant to be decorations, e.g. on a memorial/tombstone or on a front door (Christmas wreath), although there's also the practice of young girls/brides wearing wreaths of flowers.

If I'm talking about an actual physical object, I'd generally say laurel wreath, not laurel by itself. If I'm using the term figuratively, i.e. to mean accolades or rewards, then laurel or laurels by itself will usually get the point across.

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I'm interested why both you and JSBangs say that a garland is a long string; the dictionary suggests one can be "worn on the head" – presumably in that case it's not just a long strand? –  Ben Alpert May 12 '11 at 14:50
    
@Ben Alpert, actually, I would indeed expect a garland worn on the head to be a long string. Well, ok, it doesn't necessarily have to be particularly long, it just needs to have its ends free. If you connect the ends, then it becomes a wreath. –  Marthaª May 12 '11 at 14:52
    
All right; that's good enough for me. Thanks! –  Ben Alpert May 12 '11 at 14:55
    
@Ben Albert: I'm putting this comment for both answers: A search of google images suggests that garlands worn on the head look exactly like wreaths (this is pure speculation, but maybe the two ends aren't joined until after they are put on). Other types of garland are indeed long strands. –  Peter Shor May 12 '11 at 15:22
    
@Peter Shor: spaghetti can be worn exactly like wreaths, too. Doesn't stop them from being spaghetti. –  RegDwigнt May 12 '11 at 15:55
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All three of those are made of the same thing, but they have different uses and typically different sizes.

This here is a wreath. Notice that it's a ring, and it's way too big for most people's heads. Notice also that it's rigid, and used as a wall decoration.

This is a wreath.

This is a garland. Note that it's a long, flexible strand rather than a rigid ring.

This is a garland.

And this is a laurel. Note that it's small and mostly flexible, and is suitable for being worn as a crown or circlet, unlike the other two.

This is a laurel.

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I'm interested why both you and Martha say that a garland is a long string; the dictionary suggests one can be "worn on the head" – presumably in that case it's not just a long strand? –  Ben Alpert May 12 '11 at 14:50
    
I'm putting a duplicate comment for both answers: A search of google images suggests that garlands worn on the head look exactly like wreaths (this is pure speculation, but maybe the two ends aren't joined until after they are put on). Other types of garland are indeed long strands. –  Peter Shor May 12 '11 at 15:22
    
+1 I clicked on this question just knowing someone had a picture answer. Yay for pictures! –  Callithumpian May 12 '11 at 17:18
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