What is a Lottery?


A lottery is a contest in which a fixed number of tokens (or tickets) are sold and the winning one or ones are selected by lot in a random drawing. The prize money may be cash or goods. The name is derived from the Dutch word for fate (lot). The term has also been applied to any distribution by lot or chance, such as assigning rooms in a hotel or deciding who gets a job in an office.

Some people play the lottery for fun, others to win big prizes. In either case, they do it with the expectation that if they buy enough tickets they will eventually get lucky. Whether or not they actually do, the irrational hope they generate is a substantial part of the value they receive for their ticket.

Often, states organize and run lotteries to raise money for different public purposes. These lotteries are a popular alternative to taxation and have become widely used in the United States. In the 17th century it was common in colonial America for private or state-sponsored lotteries to be held to raise funds for churches, schools, canals, roads, and other public works. Public lotteries were also used in the 1740s to finance the building of several American colleges, including Harvard, Dartmouth, Yale, King’s College (now Columbia), and Union.

The earliest known use of the word was in a newspaper advertisement in England in 1569, referring to “an act or manner of casting lots” for goods. The word subsequently entered the American language, where it is derived from the Dutch noun lot (“fate”). In modern English, the meaning has expanded to include a contest in which a set of objects, numbers, or names are drawn at random.