What is the Lottery?

Lottery: a government-sponsored form of gambling in which numbers are drawn for a prize. The prizes can range from cash to goods and services. People can buy tickets individually, in groups, or as part of a syndicate. They can also choose their own numbers, though Harvard statistics professor Mark Clotfelter cautions that choosing birthdays or other personal numbers — like home addresses or social security numbers — can be bad luck. He says the chances of winning go up with the number of tickets bought.

The word lottery is derived from the Dutch verb loten, meaning “to throw lots.” A state-sponsored lottery first appeared in Europe in the early 15th century, and is believed to be a descendant of Middle Dutch loterij “action of drawing lots,” or a calque on Middle French loterie “lot-taking.” In the United States, the lottery became popular in colonial times, raising money for public works projects such as roads, bridges, canals, and churches.

In this era of antitax sentiment, governments at all levels have become dependent on the lottery as a source of painless revenue. That dynamic leads to a tension between governing goals and the desire to attract more lottery players.

People who play the lottery largely do so for fun. And while they may have quotes-unquote systems (which, based on statistical reasoning, aren’t very good) about choosing lucky numbers or going to lucky stores and even buying the right type of ticket, most understand that they will never win the big jackpots.