April 22, 2024


Lottery is the practice of distributing property or prizes, especially cash, by chance. The word comes from the Dutch lotterij, which is a diminutive of lot, a word which itself dates back to Old English lodn, or “lot” (“fate”, “destiny”) and Middle French loterie (“action of drawing lots”). The practice is ancient: the Old Testament includes a biblical passage requiring Moses to divide land among the people by lot; Roman emperors gave away slaves and property as part of Saturnalian feasts; and at dinner parties in the 16th century, hosts would distribute tickets with numbers on them for a chance to win prizes that could be taken home after the evening’s entertainment.

The basic elements of a lottery are a pool or collection of tickets and their counterfoils, a procedure for determining the winners by chance (usually shuffling), and a prize amount that can be awarded. A percentage of the prize pool goes to costs for organizing and promoting the lottery, and to profit and taxes on ticket sales; the remainder is available as a prize.

Historically, lottery proceeds have helped finance public works, including the building of the British Museum and bridges, and many American colleges: Harvard, Dartmouth, Yale, King’s College (now Columbia), William and Mary, Union, and Boston University. They also have provided a popular form of “voluntary taxes” and have raised large sums for many charitable causes, including medical research, war veterans’ benefits, and education. Lotteries have also been used to distribute units in subsidized housing developments and kindergarten placements, as well as professional sports draft picks.