(n.) a paid competition in which numbered tickets are drawn at random and prizes awarded to their holders
The word lottery is a derivative of the Italian lotto adopted into English in the mid-sixteenth century. Lotto literally means a “lot” or portion of something in Italian—and so the entrants in a lottery are literally playing for their “lot” of the prize.
It’s fair to say that this hardly ranks amongst the most surprising of etymologies, but a little more digging around in the origin of lottery nevertheless unearthed a bizarre tale from English history—and the surprising origin of an everyday expression.
According to the OED, the earliest record of the word lottery in English comes from 1567—when Queen Elizabeth I organised the English-speaking world’s first ever state lottery to raise funds for the “strength of the Realm and towards such other good publick works”. At the time, England was looking to expand its overseas trade, but in order to do that, ships, ports and harbours all needed to be built and upgraded. The cost of the project was understandably immense, but instead of raising taxes Elizabeth decided to organise a national lottery.
Hundreds of advertisements like the one at the top of this page were printed and distributed across England, explaining that a total of 400,000 tickets were now on sale at the staggering price of ten shillings each—equivalent to more than £80 ($120) today. First prize, however, was a cool £5,000—or almost £1,200,000 ($1.8m) in 2015.
As the leaflets explained, the prize was to be paid partly in cash, partly in gold and silver plate, and partly in other “sorts of merchaundizes”, including tapestries, wall hangings, and “good linnen cloth”. It was essentially an Elizabethan Prize Is Right, except that as an extra incentive everyone who bought a ticket was also given one week’s immunity from arrest for any crime barring murder, piracy or treason. Bob Barker never gave anybody that.
Crucially, however, the leaflets also explained that Queen Elizabeth’s lottery was “without any blanckes”—and it’s this that leads us down another etymological path.
At the time, it was standard practice when holding raffles and tombolas to have two “lot-pots”, one containing all the entrants’ tickets and the other containing a mixture of tickets bearing the prizes and a great deal more blank tickets, with nothing written on them at all. When the time came, one ticket would be drawn from each pot, but if your name was drawn along with a blank ticket you wouldn’t win anything—you would, quite literally, have drawn a blank. Elizabeth’s lottery temptingly did away with these frustrating “blanks”, so that whoever’s ticket was drawn first was guaranteed a prize.
Over time, the phrase to draw a blank slipped into everyday use in English and gained the more general meaning of “to be unsuccessful” or “to search for something in vain”, and has remained in use in English ever since.
But all of this leaves one question unanswered: who won Elizabeth’s lottery? Sadly, the identity of the £5,000 winner is today unknown, but it’s fair to say that at the time it would have been a truly life changing prize...