What is a Lottery?


A game of chance in which tokens are distributed or sold, and the winning ones are secretly predetermined or ultimately selected by lot: often sponsored by a state or organization as a way to raise funds. Also called lotto, loteria, and lot.

It seems obvious that people like to gamble, and that’s certainly why states create these games, but there’s a lot more going on. In addition to the irrational gambling urge, lottery advertising dangles the possibility of instant riches, and in a time when social mobility is so limited, that’s appealing.

A prize of money or goods, or, more commonly, a fixed percentage of the total receipts from a ticket sale. A lottery can be conducted by drawing lots or by random selection; some modern types are used for military conscription, commercial promotions in which prizes (such as a vacation) are given away to paying customers, and the selection of jury members from lists of registered voters.

The word “lottery” is first attested to English in the 17th century, but its roots are uncertain. It could be a compound of Middle Dutch loterij and Middle French loterie, or perhaps it is a calque from Old English hlot, meaning “fate” (compare with omen). Earlier records include the drawing of wood slips to determine property distribution during the Han dynasty in China between 205 and 187 BC. In Europe, lotteries appeared in the 15th century in Burgundy and Flanders with towns raising funds to fortify defenses and aid the poor. Francis I of France introduced public profit lotteries in several cities in the 1500s.