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Activate the balls!

The British national lottery celebrated its first anniversary amid enormous excitement amounting to lotterymania because a rollover prize of £40 million was offered in the first draw of 1996. Ten scratchcard lotteries, instants, are currently being operated by the same company. Those four tagged words have been the buzzwords of 1995 in the UK, attested by researchers who have examined a computer database containing the text of British newspapers. Activate the balls! is a catchphrase that became part of the language when it was used by Noel Edmunds in the first televised draw, the reference being to the coloured and numbered balls which are stirred by air jets in a transparent container and then ejected one by one to give the winning numbers.

But lotteries have been the source of many other terms, expressions and proverbs ever since Queen Elizabeth I organised the first lottery in England in 1566 to raise money for such “publique good works” as repairing harbours. The lottery tickets were put into a container for the draw, often a earthenware pot or jar, called a lot-pot or lottery-pot. Unlike modern lotteries, the draw was in two parts. First a number was drawn from the one pot, then a ticket giving the prize from another. The snag, and this must have caused enormous anguish to the person whose ticket had just been drawn, was that the prize slips were often blank. An idiom derived from this lottery system, though long since defunct, is it is lots to blanks meaning it is long odds, say a thousand to one against. Some lotteries were announced as “having no blanks” meaning that every ticket drawn won a prize.

As time passed, lotteries became ever larger and with bigger prizes. Under James I a lottery funded the colonisation of Virginia; London was provided with water in the time of Charles I by one authorised in 1627. William III used lotteries to finance his wars against the French — in 1694 the million lottery was authorised, in which a million pounds was to be raised each year by the sale of lottery tickets at ten pounds each; in 1697, the government staked its revenues from the duty on malt as security for the lottery of that year, getting it the nickname of the malt lottery.

But it was in the eighteenth century that lotteries really became big business. Westminster Bridge was paid for from the proceeds of a public lottery in the 1730s and £300,000 was raised in the same way twenty years later to build the British Museum. The draws for the state lottery look place in the Guildhall in London before a noisy and enthusiastic crowd. Perhaps to make the lottery idea more respectable-sounding (euphemism has a very long history), prizes were often called benefits, and a winning ticket was a benefit-ticket. The old system of lot-pots had long since given way to wheel-like containers into which the tickets were placed and spun to randomise them: these were called the wheels of fortune from the middle of the eighteenth century onwards (the association with roulette had to await the next century). The dual system with prizes and blanks continued, and it was in this period that the idiom to draw a blank was born, though it doesn’t turn up in print until the 1820s. The draw was presided over by an official called a proclaimer but the draw itself was often by a small boy, usually from a charity school, though Charles II did it in 1683, making him the first celebrity presenter in lottery history.

There were two types of lotteries, standing lotteries in which money continued to be taken for a set period, with the draw at the end, and running lotteries which had daily draws. In the eighteenth century, when lottery tickets were incredibly expensive and not easily afforded by many people (£10 was easily the equivalent of £500 today) tickets for running lotteries could be hired out by the day, the slang term for one being a horse. There were additional prizes for winning sequences of numbers, three in a row being a tern and four a quatern. Often the person having the first winning ticket of the day won a special prize, called a welcome, or it was given to the first person drawing a blank as a sort of consolation prize. A combined form of gambling and investment was provided by the omniums of the same period, in which funds were invested in lottery tickets to produce a rather irregular return, rather like the modern British Premium Bonds. The government at this period made various attempts to stamp out unlicensed lotteries, called little-goes, these being outlawed by an Act of Parliament in 1802: “All such Games or Lotteries, called Little Goes, shall ... be deemed ... common and publick Nuisances, and against Law”.

The excesses of the public lotteries caused great revulsion among thinking people, who saw poor individuals who could not easily afford the cost of tickets being bankrupted by gambling. In 1808 a parliamentary committee found that lotteries were “vicious” and they were banned altogether in 1826. It was not until the 1976 Lotteries and Amusements Act that public lotteries were again legalised in Britain (one paid much of the construction costs of a museum I was then developing) and the national lottery was re-established well after they had become a settled institution in many countries (and had, for example, paid for the Sydney Opera House). Will the current excesses of lottery fever cause a similar revulsion in Britain to that in 1826?

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 3 Jan. 1996

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Last modified: 3 January 1996.