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The reality of witch's tit

Your boyfriend is not alone

Dear Matthew Alice: I thought my new boyfriend was shy because he wouldn’t take off his shirt for the first five months we were dating. Then I learned the reason. He has a diminutive nipple and areola just beneath his fully developed right nipple. He says it’s a "witches’ tit” but won’t say anything more about it, I suspect, out of embarrassment. What is a “witches’ tit”? Do other men have it? And does having it mean my boyfriend possesses supernatural powers? — A.C., University Heights

If he does, I trust he uses them for good. But good or bad, his powers have nothing to do with the so-called witches’ tit. That’s an old, old wives’ tale associated with a surprisingly common physical anomaly. The last time they made headlines was in Salem back in the 1600s; they were considered proof positive that a person was a witch. In our marginally more enlightened times, we call them supernumerary nipples. Many people have them and don’t even realize it.

For their origin, we’ll have to go back to five or six weeks A.C. (after conception). Around this time, human embryos develop two lines of thickened tissue that extend from the groin area into each armpit. They’re “milk lines” or “mammary ridges." Humans usually develop one mammary gland and nipple on each ridge, in the pectoral area. (Other mammals — subprimates — develop multiple glands along this line. Flip Rover upside down to get a full picture.) Usually, in humans, the mammary ridges disappear late in the embryonic stage with only the rudiments of two breasts and nipples remaining. But sometimes one (or more) extra glands or nipples develop and are left behind when the ridge fades. The condition of having an extra nipple is known medically as polythelia; having a full extra breast is called polymastia. Polythelia is much more common and often takes the form of a small darkened patch of skin or what appears to be a mole, usually somewhere along the milk line. Because it doesn’t look like a nipple, nobody worries about it.

Perhaps your boyfriend can take some comfort in statistics. According to the Encyclopedia of Genetic Disorders and Birth Defects, medical estimates of the combined rate of polythelia and polymastia run as high as one in 100 births in the general population. Other sources estimate one in 200. Whichever figure is closer to the truth, there are a lot of us walking around with the condition in one form or another. It occurs in males and females in all races and is a genetically determined trait. In the most rare and extreme form of polymastia, a breast can develop anywhere on the body, including head and limbs.

But back to the Dark Ages. The term “witches’ tit” comes from the belief that hidden on their bodies witches had an extra nipple with which they nursed their “familiars” —their cats or other demons. Find the witches’ tit and you’ve got yourself a bona fide witch. Sorry to hear the term is still around, adding insult to injury.

One of the best-known figures believed to display polymastia is the Venus de Milo. Above her right breast, near the armpit, she apparently displays what some think is a supernumerary breast bud. I tried to shake down my editor for a plane ticket to Paris to check this one out, but no luck. So you’re on your own with that factlet.

Hi: Got a question. Why do you use “Straight from the Hip” as your title? What’s the history? — Tim, San Diego

Well, we considered calling it “Straight to the Dense,” but that seemed a little cold.

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