What is a Lottery?


A lottery is an arrangement in which prizes are allocated by chance. The prizes may be money or other goods and services. A lottery is a type of gambling and is usually regulated by law. It can be a form of fundraising or a way to distribute benefits.

In the early sixteenth century, Europeans began to organize state lotteries to build town fortifications and to provide charity for the poor. Queen Elizabeth I chartered the first English lottery in 1567, specifying its profits for “reparation of the Havens and strength of the Realme.” Tickets cost ten shillings, a significant sum back then. But they also provided a get-out-of-jail-free card: if someone won the lottery, they were immune from arrest for certain crimes, including piracy, murder, and treason.

There are many forms of lottery, but in general the term refers to a competition in which numbered tickets are sold for a chance to win a prize, which can range from cash to jewelry or a new car. The important elements are payment, chance, and a prize. The competition can be simple or complex, but the first stage must rely entirely on chance; if later stages involve skill, the arrangement is not a lottery. Moreover, federal statutes prohibit the mailing in interstate or foreign commerce of promotions for lotteries or the sending of the lottery tickets themselves.

Lotteries are used in a variety of ways, from allocating kindergarten admission at a reputable school to selecting which people will live in a subsidized housing unit. But despite the fact that they’re designed to be fair, they’re not. The reliance on chance means that they’re regressive—that is, they have a much bigger impact on the poor than they do on the rich.

The word lottery is probably derived from the Middle Dutch Loterie, via the calque on Latin lotere (“to draw lots”) and, according to one theory, the Latin verb lota (“to pull”). But there’s another possible source: Old English lote “to fall or come” (from LOT), which itself might be related to the Old Norse word lotr “fate, fate, destiny,” or “the fortune of war.”

Regardless of how it is derived, the concept of lottery has been with us for centuries. It was common in the Roman Empire—Nero was a fan—and is attested to in biblical texts, from Moses’ census to the casting of lots to determine a king’s inheritance. Lotteries have even been used to give away land and slaves. In the nineteenth century, a few states legalized them as a solution to budgetary crises that wouldn’t anger their anti-tax electorate. The rest of the country soon followed suit, and, by the late twentieth century, lotteries were a major source of revenue for state governments. As the national tax revolt of the nineteen-eighties intensified, these revenues declined, but state governments continued to rely on them.