What is a Lottery?


Lottery is a method of distributing something, often money or prizes, among a group of people by chance. The procedure may involve drawing lots to determine the winner or it may involve a process of accumulating chances, as in a sweepstakes or commercial promotion that includes the payment of a fee for a chance to win. It is generally considered to be gambling.

Despite the many warnings against it, the lottery is a popular form of gambling. People spend upwards of $100 billion a year buying lottery tickets. States promote these games as a way to raise revenue, but just how important that money is in the larger state budgets and whether it’s worth the foregone savings of people who would otherwise save for retirement or college tuition is debatable.

While some people argue that playing the lottery is harmless because someone has to win, it is important to remember that the lottery is a get-rich-quick scheme that is statistically futile. It focuses one’s attention on the temporal riches that money can buy and diverts one’s efforts away from honest, hard work. The Bible warns us not to covet wealth and the things that money can purchase: “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house, his wife, his male or female servant, his ox or donkey, or anything that is his” (Exodus 20:17).

The first lotteries in Europe were organized by religious or charitable groups for various purposes. Later, emperors such as Nero and Augustus used them to distribute slaves and property during Saturnalian feasts. In modern times, government-sponsored lotteries are common as means of raising funds for military conscription, commercial promotions in which property is given away by chance, and the selection of jurors. The term is also used for a system of awarding licenses or permits when the number of applicants exceeds the available quantity, in which an objective procedure is followed to ensure that the recipients are randomly selected.

The word lottery is derived from the Dutch noun lot (“fate, fortune”) and the verb lotto (“to cast lots”). The old Germanic root of both words was hlot. Historically, a prize or share was distributed by throwing objects into a receptacle, such as a hat or helmet; the person who got the object that fell out first won. This practice is the origin of the expressions to cast your lot with another and to draw lots with a partner; the latter was a calque on Middle Dutch loterie, or loterij, from the same Germanic root. It was also common in early America for private individuals to organize lotteries to raise money for charitable or other public uses. The Continental Congress voted to hold a lottery to help finance the American Revolution. Private lotteries helped build Harvard, Dartmouth, Yale, Brown, and King’s College, as well as other prominent American institutions. The lottery became a popular form of fundraising in the United States after 1800, when the first national state-sponsored lotteries were established.