What is a Lottery?

Lottery is a process of randomly selecting winners from a pool of applicants. It is commonly used to allocate limited resources, such as units in a subsidized housing block or kindergarten placements at a good public school. It can also be a form of gambling, where participants pay for tickets to win prizes. Financial lotteries, which dish out cash or other goods, are the most common examples.

While state governments are quick to laud the benefits of the lottery, the actual impact on society is complex. The fact is that while a minority of people play the lottery — and the percentage of players who buy one ticket a week varies from state to state — most lottery revenue comes from a small number of large players, disproportionately low-income, less educated, nonwhite men. Lottery revenues have expanded rapidly, but they have also leveled off and begun to decline in recent years. This has prompted the introduction of new games and an increased emphasis on promotion.

The word lottery is derived from the Latin verb lotire, meaning “to draw lots.” It has been used to allocate various resources since ancient times. Its modern-day origins are unclear, but it may be a calque of Middle Dutch loterie, which was used in the 1500s to describe a draw for the privilege of holding land or slaves. The earliest known record of a lottery is a keno slip from the Chinese Han dynasty, between 205 and 187 BC. Benjamin Franklin ran a lottery in the American Revolution to raise funds for cannons to defend Philadelphia, and George Washington’s Mountain Road Lottery of 1768 was unsuccessful.