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Can someone explain the following sentence to me in simpler language.

I'm not a native English speaker. I was faced a problem while reading a particular sentence from O Henry's "One Thousand Dollars".

You could rent Madison Square Garden for one evening with it, and lecture your audience, if you should have one, on the precariousness of the profession of heir presumptive.

I know precarious means uncertain and presumptive is of the nature of a presumption; presumed in the absence of further information.

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    An heir presumptive is an heir who may be superseded (eg a princess who is overtaken by a younger brother). See ODO. – Andrew Leach Jan 7 '16 at 15:29
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The noun phrase in question is certainly convoluted. O. Henry liked using fancy language.

  • the precariousness of the profession of heir presumptive

Note that it's actually three noun phrases; the second one is the object of the first preposition of.

  • the profession of heir presumptive

And the third one is the object of the second preposition of.

  • heir presumptive

Starting from the bottom, heir presumptive is a fixed phrase. It means 'the person who is presumed to be the heir', which can mean the next Duke, the future owner of the company, or the person who will succeed some other person in an important role. The presumption comes about because nothing about inheritance is certain until someone dies, and even then it's often complicated, so one can only presume.

Moving up to the second noun phrase, we note that heir presumptive is not a profession, so this is figurative language. It refers to the waiting that an heir presumptive must endure before inheriting. Whatever that entails.

Finally, precariousness is predicated. You're right about the meaning of precarious, but precariousness is an abstract noun meaning 'the state of being precarious'.

So tell the audience that being an heir apparent is a very precarious situation to find oneself in.

  • Where the order cannot be disturbed by a future event, such as the birth of a child somewhere, the heir is said to be an heir apparent. Prince Charles is an heir apparent. (He would not have been given the title Prince of Wales had he not been). However his mother, when Princess Elizabeth, was an heir presumptive, for had George VI sired a son, that child would have taken precedence. The law has now been changed so that females rank equal to males in the order of succession, something Julia Gillard, then PM of Australia described, perhaps in jest, as giving every Sheila a chance. – WS2 Jan 7 '16 at 16:11
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    I would add that the "profession of heir presumptive" implies that one is relying for their livelihood on the presumption that they will be an heir. Treating one's future inheritance as a presumed source of livelihood is most precarious. – recognizer Jan 7 '16 at 17:05

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