The History of the Lottery

A lottery is a traditional gambling game in which tickets are sold for a chance to win a prize. People in the US spent over $80 billion on these games in 2021, making it one of the most popular forms of gambling. Whether or not lotteries are good for society is up to debate, but there’s no doubt that they make states money. The question is whether that money is worth the trade-offs to people who lose out on the big prizes.

The history of lotteries dates back centuries. The Old Testament instructs Moses to conduct a census of Israel and divide land by lot, and Roman emperors often used lotteries to give away property and slaves. The modern lotteries that we are familiar with started in Europe in the 1500s, with town fortifications and charitable purposes among the most common uses for funds raised.

In 1776 the Continental Congress voted to create a lottery to raise funds for the American Revolution; the scheme was later abandoned, but over the next 30 years it became common for many countries to run smaller public lotteries that were viewed as mechanisms for obtaining “voluntary taxes.” Privately organized lotteries also were popular in England and the United States, allowing sellers to sell products or properties for more than they could receive in a regular sale.

The word lottery is believed to be derived from the Dutch noun lot, meaning “fate” or “assignment by fate.” The word was first recorded in English in the 16th century, though it was probably influenced by Middle Low Dutch loterie (as well as other words, such as fate and destin). Merriam-Webster Dictionary: