The releases of FreeBSD is best illustrated by a tree with many branches where each major branch represents a major version. Minor versions are represented by branches of the major branches.
In the following release tree, arrows that follow one-another in a particular direction represent a branch. Boxes with full lines and diamonds represent official releases. Boxes with dotted lines represent the development branch at that time. Security branches are represented by ovals. Diamonds differ from boxes in that they represent a fork, meaning a place where a branch splits into two branches where one of the branches becomes a sub-branch. For example, at 4.0-RELEASE the 4.0-CURRENT branch split into 4-STABLE and 5.0-CURRENT. At 4.5-RELEASE, the branch forked off a security branch called RELENG_4_5.
The latest -CURRENT version is always referred to as -CURRENT, while the latest -STABLE release is always referred to as -STABLE. In this figure, -STABLE refers to 4-STABLE while -CURRENT refers to 5.0-CURRENT following 5.0-RELEASE. [FreeBSD, 2002E]
A “major release” is always made from the -CURRENT branch. However, the -CURRENT branch does not need to fork at that point in time, but can focus on stabilising. An example of this is that following 3.0-RELEASE, 3.1-RELEASE was also a continuation of the -CURRENT-branch, and -CURRENT did not become a true development branch until this version was released and the 3-STABLE branch was forked. When -CURRENT returns to becoming a development branch, it can only be followed by a major release. 5-STABLE is predicted to be forked off 5.0-CURRENT at around 5.3-RELEASE. It is not until 5-STABLE is forked that the development branch will be branded 6.0-CURRENT.
A “minor release” is made from the -CURRENT branch following a major release, or from the -STABLE branch.
Following and including, 4.3-RELEASE, when a minor release has been made, it becomes a “security branch”. This is meant for organisations that do not want to follow the -STABLE branch and the potential new/changed features it offers, but instead require an absolutely stable environment, only updating to implement security updates. 
Each update to a security branch is called a “patchlevel”. For every security enhancement that is done, the patchlevel number is increased, making it easy for people tracking the branch to see what security enhancements they have implemented. In cases where there have been especially serious security flaws, an entire new release can be made from a security branch. An example of this is 4.6.2-RELEASE.
The first release this actually happened for was 4.5-RELEASE, but security branches were at the same time created for 4.3-RELEASE and 4.4-RELEASE.
There is a terminology overlap with respect to the word "stable", which leads to some confusion. The -STABLE branch is still a development branch, whose goal is to be useful for most people. If it is never acceptable for a system to get changes that are not announced at the time it is deployed, that system should run a security branch.