What is the Lottery?

The lottery is a form of gambling in which numbers or symbols are drawn at random to determine winners. The earliest lotteries were probably conducted as far back as the 15th century, when the casting of lots for decisions and fates had a long history (see also fate and decision). The word “lottery” is likely to be derived from Middle Dutch loterie, a diminutive of Old English lootie, itself a diminutive of loot, or possibly from the Latin loto, meaning fate; the name may also derive from the verb lottore, “to draw lots.”

Early state-run lotteries resembled traditional raffles in which participants bought tickets with a specific date, often weeks or months in the future, at which time winners would be determined. The introduction of innovative games in the 1970s dramatically changed the way people played the lottery, as did the proliferation of electronic games in the 1990s. In the most basic form, these games involve a computer that records bettor identification information, and a pool or collection of tickets and counterfoils from which winning numbers or symbols are chosen at random. This pool must be thoroughly mixed, usually by mechanical means, such as shaking or tossing, before the drawing is conducted.

Many states have used the lottery to expand their range of services without imposing especially onerous taxes on working families and the middle class. In this sense, the lottery is an alternative to sin taxes on vices such as alcohol and tobacco, with the added benefit that gambling can be less socially harmful than these two vices.