A competition based on chance, in which tickets are sold and prizes given to the holders of numbers selected at random; often sponsored by a state or other organization as a means of raising money. Also, figuratively, any situation in which the outcome depends on luck or chance: Life can be such a lottery—you never know what’s going to happen.

The drawing of lots to determine ownership or other rights is recorded in many ancient documents, and lotteries became popular in Europe in the 16th century, raising funds for towns, wars, colleges, and public-works projects. The English word lottery comes from Dutch, though the Middle Dutch spelling was lotteria; it may be a calque of Old English hlot (cognate with fate).

People play the lottery for fun and to fantasize about winning big. But studies show that those with low incomes make up a disproportionate share of players, and critics say it’s a hidden tax that drains the budgets of poor families.

Many states regulate their lotteries and delegate the responsibility of running them to a special lottery board or commission. These agencies hire and train retailers to sell and redeem tickets, promote the games and educate the public on gambling responsibly. They also select and license winners and ensure that lottery retailers comply with the laws governing their operations. Some lotteries post demand information online, including the breakdown of successful applicants by state and country.

Some lotteries offer products such as cars and vacations as top prizes, while others feature celebrities and sports teams as brand ambassadors or endorsers. These promotional partnerships generate revenue for the lottery while promoting the brands. Other types of prize include cash, appliances and other household goods, livestock, and land. The Indianapolis Star reported in April 2004 that a multi-national lottery deal had fallen through because several European nations were upset about the United States’ involvement in Iraq.

Although there’s little evidence that lotteries improve social outcomes, they do provide a steady source of income for governments and organizations, and they’re an easy way to raise funds. However, there’s a growing concern that the popularity of these games may distract from other public priorities and lead to a loss of social cohesion. And, as many people have discovered, winning the lottery isn’t always a sure thing.