A lottery is a method for distributing prizes, especially money, by chance. In modern usage, the word often refers to a state-sponsored game of chance in which numbers are drawn to determine the winners of a prize, although it may also describe other types of gambling games or commercial promotions where the goods or services to be distributed are not immediately apparent. It is a form of gambling because, in addition to paying for a ticket, participants must also pay attention to the odds of winning.
The casting of lots to make decisions and determine fates has a long record in human history (there are several examples in the Bible), but lotteries to raise funds for material gain have only recently become common. They are thought to have originated in the Low Countries in the 15th century, when towns organized public lotteries to help build town fortifications and other projects. The first recorded lottery to sell tickets with the stated intention of awarding prizes in the form of cash was held in 1466 in Bruges, Belgium.
Many states today offer a lottery or similar gambling games, and they enjoy broad popular support. Even in times of economic stress, a lottery has consistently won broad approval as a way to fund state government services.
While the popularity of a lottery depends in part on its status as a painless tax, there are other factors that contribute to its success. One is the degree to which the proceeds of a lottery are earmarked for a specific public use; the more this is done, the greater the appeal of participating in it. This argument is particularly effective when the state’s fiscal condition is poor, but it also works in periods of prosperity.
But a key message that lottery commissions use to attract and retain the public’s interest is the promise of instant riches. In an era of inequality and limited social mobility, the lottery’s advertising of mega-sized jackpots plays on people’s deepest urges to gamble on their own fortune.
Lottery marketers argue that they are not merely attracting people with a desire to win big, but that they are also helping people who would otherwise have difficulty paying for essential services. And there is some truth to this claim, since it is not uncommon for lottery proceeds to be used to help poor families with children buy food or clothing. However, this argument is flawed for other reasons: It obscures the regressive nature of the lottery and it distorts people’s sense of what it means to gamble. Moreover, the fact is that most people who play the lottery don’t gamble with just any old money; they spend their hard-earned paychecks on tickets. In many cases, it is the inextricable combination of the two that makes them vulnerable to a lottery’s advertising strategies. This article was originally published in the June 2014 issue of the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 5th Edition.