Lottery is a state-run contest where people buy tickets for a chance to win big money. But it can also refer to any contest in which the winners are chosen at random—including a school lottery where kids are chosen for classes or kindergarten placements. People love to play the lottery, and there’s a reason for that. They believe that their lives will improve if they win, and this hope is what draws them in. In reality, the chances of winning are much lower than finding true love or getting hit by lightning. Lottery jackpots grow to apparently newsworthy amounts and earn lottery games a windfall of free publicity on news websites and newscasts. They can even be deliberately designed to get higher: a recent change in how Powerball jackpots are calculated allows the size of the prize to balloon.
A sliver of hope is what drives people to play the lottery, and it’s why state lotteries are so popular—despite the fact that they’re basically taxation by stealth. One of the main messages that state lotteries rely on is that you should feel good about yourself, because you’re supporting the state and its children when you buy a ticket. But there’s an ugly underbelly to this message.
The word lotteries comes from the Dutch words lut and ter, meaning “a group or collection of things” and literally means “to distribute by lot.” It has been used since the 1500s to describe games where people bought tickets for the chance to win prizes, including cash. It’s no surprise that this is an easy game to sell—people love the idea of a small chance of winning a large amount.