The History of the Lottery


A lottery is a gambling game where participants buy tickets for a chance to win prizes. It is similar to a raffle or bingo, but it offers large prizes such as cash or merchandise. Governments and licensed promoters organize lotteries to raise money for a variety of purposes, including public works projects. During the American Revolution, lotteries were used to fund a militia and public buildings, such as Faneuil Hall in Boston. Lotteries are also a popular way for states to raise revenue without raising taxes. In 2021, people in the US spent over $100 billion on lottery tickets.

The lottery is a common practice in many countries, with some governments regulating it and others not. In the United States, the lottery is legal and regulated by state laws. In addition to the prizes, some states use the proceeds from lotteries for education, health care, and other programs. However, critics argue that the lottery encourages impulsive spending and is harmful to the economy.

In the short story “The Lottery,” Shirley Jackson depicts a small-town tradition in which one member of the community is selected to be stoned to death based on a random drawing. The townspeople believe that this annual event purges the town of bad people and brings good luck for crops. The scapegoating of Tessie Hutchinson is a reminder of the evil nature of humankind, and it illustrates how people can fall victim to oppressive norms and cultures.

During the Chinese Han dynasty (205 BC to 187 BC), early lotteries were used for public works, and the first recorded use of the term “lottery” comes from the Book of Songs (2nd millennium BC). In modern times, lottery games are widely known and popular worldwide. People often participate in the lottery to try to improve their financial situation, but the risk of losing money is high. Some states have banned the lottery altogether, while others regulate it and set minimum prize amounts.

Although the word “lottery” is usually associated with gambling, it can also refer to anything that depends on chance—for example, which judges are assigned to a case. People may also use the word to describe any situation that appears to be random or unfair.

The word lottery is derived from the Dutch noun “lot” meaning fate or destiny, and it has been in use since at least the 15th century. It was borrowed into English in the 16th century, possibly as a calque of Middle French loterie (“lotting,” or “drawing lots”). It is related to the Latin verb lutor, which means “to play.” The earliest known commercial lotteries were organized by private companies in the Netherlands and were marketed as a form of painless taxation. In the American colonies, private lotteries played a major role in financing public and private ventures, including roads, canals, bridges, churches, libraries, colleges, and schools. In 1740, Benjamin Franklin ran a lottery in Philadelphia to raise money for the militia and the Continental Congress. George Washington ran a lottery in Virginia to help finance a road over a mountain pass.