There are a number of benefits to living in a country whose language is not entirely transparent to you. It’s easier to tune out ambient human noise. Maybe it’s not so much tuning out as changing the station from talk radio to instrumental music.
Sometimes your translation module misfires and produces interesting results. A few nights ago I passed a newsagent with a national lottery sign in the window and the word loterij came out as “fate store”.
You see these orange and blue signs everywhere but the idea of buying fate made me stop and look long enough to realize that my memory of the logo was wrong. I remembered it as a little fish eating a big fish, meaning “Dream big. Yeah, it’s a long shot, but hey, you never know.” (Which actually is the tagline of the New York lottery.)
But the Dutch logo is a big fish eating a little fish which seems like a cold, fishy slap in the face to the irrational hope that lotteries are based on: “Wake up, chum. The reality is, the big fish eat the little fish. That’s the way of the world.” (An idea long familiar to the phlegmatic Dutch.)
There was a California lottery campaign years ago in which celebrities explained their favorite numbers to play. Steve Wozniak said he played 1-2-3-4-5-6 because it had just as much chance as any other combination. I still wonder if he was just trying to plant a rationalist mind bomb by directly contradicting one of the common cognitive biases of lottery players, that winning combinations are more “random”.
State lotteries have been called a regressive tax because the people who play are mainly lower income. If you think the lottery is your only chance at economic success, then it probably doesn’t seem irrational at all. And a recent study indicates that people are more likely to play when made to feel subjectively poorer. The same study also says that people play more when reminded that they have just as much chance to win as anyone else. For someone who feels the world as a whole is unfair, even rigged, the lottery looks like a rare even playing field.
A planner doing research for a state lottery once told me that among poor Hispanics there was a belief that God wants to help you but you have to give him the chance by buying a ticket. That sounds like an incredibly addictive formula, a self-stabilizing system of fate, chance and something like freedom.
None of this, however, helped me to understand the Dutch lottery logo. It turns out that it’s an illustration of a Dutch saying: You have to throw out a smelt to catch a cod. According to my Big Book of Dutch Idioms, this means "to offer up something small in order to get something much bigger in return." The contextual example it gives is from the surprisingly topical area of Dutch drug policy which tolerates marijuana (the small offering) in return for decreased criminality and hard drug use.
But a lottery ticket doesn't offer a reasonable expectation of return. So the small fish isn't the price of anything. It's just an offering to fate.