A lottery is a game in which numbers or symbols are drawn at random to determine winners of prizes. The prizes may range from goods to cash. Many governments prohibit lotteries, but others endorse them and regulate them. Lotteries are usually public, but some private enterprises also run them. Lottery games are popular in most nations. Some people make a living from them, but the odds of winning are extremely low.

Lotteries were invented in the ancient world and are thought to have helped finance the building of the Great Wall of China. They were spread widely in Europe by the Romans, and European colonists brought them to America, despite Protestant proscriptions against gambling. They were tangled up with the slave trade, sometimes in unanticipated ways; George Washington once managed a lottery whose prizes included human beings, and one formerly enslaved man, Denmark Vesey, used a prize won in a South Carolina lottery to buy his freedom, then fomented a slave rebellion.

The first state-sponsored lotteries were organized in the Low Countries in the 15th century. The word “lottery” probably originated from Middle Dutch loterie, or a calque on the French word loterie, meaning “action of drawing lots.” Lotteries typically involve many small prizes and are designed to balance the costs of organizing and promoting them with the frequency and size of the prizes. The organizers or sponsors also decide whether to set the odds of winning high, allowing fewer larger prizes, or lower, attracting more players with smaller prizes that are won often.