What is a Lottery?


The distribution of property or money by lot. The practice is ancient, and the term was first used in English in 1625, probably as a translation of Middle Dutch loterie.

Governments often hold lotteries to raise money for various public purposes. The oldest still running lottery is the Netherlands State Lottery (Staatsloterij), which has been in operation since 1726. Privately organized lotteries are also common. They have a long history in England and America and were once hailed as a form of “voluntary taxes.” Lotteries contributed to the construction of Harvard, Dartmouth, Yale, and many other colleges. They also raised funds to help the poor, and supported the Continental Congress in its efforts to raise money for the American Revolution.

A lottery is a scheme for the distribution of prizes by chance among those who purchase tickets. A ticket may bear a number or blank; the prize is drawn from a pool of tickets with corresponding numbers. The word is probably a calque from French loterie, itself a calque from Middle Dutch loterje, and perhaps a compound of hlot or hlott and the verb lotte, derived from Proto-Germanic *khlutan, to cast lots or divide by lot (source also of Old English hlot, Saxon hlot, German Los). Federal statutes prohibit the mailing or transportation in interstate commerce of promotion for a lottery. The chances of winning are very low, but there are many people who play the lottery regularly and spend billions every year. Those who play are disproportionately lower-income, less educated, and nonwhite.