"crowned with laurels" (as a mark of distinction), late 14c., earliest reference is to poetic distinction, from Latin laureatus "crowned with laurels," from laurea "laurel crown" (emblematic of victory or distinction in poetry), from fem. of laureus "of laurel," from laurus "laurel" (see laurel (n.)).
Laureat poete is first found in "Canterbury Tales" (in reference to Petrarch -- Fraunceys Petrak); it also was used in Middle English of Aesop and, by early 15c., of Chaucer. Inverted form poet laureate, in imitation of Latin word order, is from c. 1400 in English); the first official one probably was Ben Jonson (1638), though the first recorded one was Dryden (1668). Extended 1947 to Nobel prize winners. As a noun, 1520s, from the adjective or from a mistaken reading of poet laureate. Related: Laureateship (1732), laureation.