What is a Dear John Letter?

Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick

Some American soldiers fighting during World War II discovered that months of separation from their hometown sweethearts could lead to unfortunate personal events. One such event involved receiving a formal and terse break-up message from home called a Dear John letter. Such a letter often began with a formal or perfunctory greeting, not the usual "My Dearest Sam" or "My Sweet Darling," which served to let the recipient brace himself for bad news. The contents of a typical Dear John letter would also be direct and detached: "I have met someone else since you've been away, and I believe it would be best if you and I agreed to part company."

The contents of a typical Dear John letter would be direct and detached.
The contents of a typical Dear John letter would be direct and detached.

The origin of the name "John" in a Dear John letter is still a matter of controversy. Some sources believe the name John was chosen because of its commonality at the time, much like John Q. Public or John Doe is used today. Others say that the name was a reference to several popular songs which referred to foot soldiers as "Johnnies," as in When Johnnie Comes Marching Home Again. There is also a theory that a popular 1930s radio show began each episode with a female actress intoning Dear John as she began reading a letter to her unknown paramour.

The practice of sending these letters as a long distance break-up tactic became so common, in fact, that some women didn't even bother to compose more than the salutation. A soldier might only receive the message "Dear John" and nothing else. When fellow soldiers pressed the recipients for more details, many replied "That's all she wrote." This is said to be how the phrase that was all she wrote came into popular usage.

The Dear John letter may have been replaced by the Dear John e-mail or phone call, but it is still a sad reality for some members of the military serving away from home. There is also the Dear Jane letter, which affects female military members in the same way as the Dear John letter. Some in the business world also refer to formal letters of dismissal as Dear Johns, since they serve essentially the same function for a company's soon-to-be former employees.

Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick

A regular wiseGEEK contributor, Michael enjoys doing research in order to satisfy his wide-ranging curiosity about a variety of arcane topics. Before becoming a professional writer, Michael worked as an English tutor, poet, voice-over artist, and DJ.

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Discussion Comments


You guys amaze me a lot. Tell me, isn't it by far better to receive a "Dear John or Jane" mail than to eventually come to meet her/him in the warm embrace of another John/Jane? Look guys, anyone who could send such letter at all isn't even worth going back to in the first place. Face the truth guys: to be forewarned is to be forearmed, got the drift? I'm out!


I think that the callousness of those that do this is unforgivable. They will be judged by their actions when their time comes. Even for those who have redeployed and are are stuck at a base and not able to be physically home should be given their time to return to normal.


anon16630: responding, yes it is hard and painful and i agree no one should have to receive one, but what if you've endured so much you feel yourself becoming indifferent towards this person because of their repeated mistakes/actions?

i agree with you because everything is worth a try and waiting is a sign of love but also why are you going to keep letting yourself get hurt or allow yourself to become indifferent towards this person?

It's best to just end it after the third breakup (or mistake) because if you mess up the first time, shame on you; second time, shame on me; third shame on us and that means it's just not meant to be no matter how hard we may try to fix problems, etc. --ZZZ13


Interesting, thank you. But I have to write a 'Dear John' to a man who is in prison, (it's a long story and he's innocent) who has recently written to me telling me he loves me and his biggest fear is that I'll forget him. The problem is, I'm married, he's always known that and I told him I would be a friend and help him all I could, which he accepted - at first. Now he wants more. I can't go and visit him anymore, I have to draw a line under it. I love my husband. If I ignore the letter, he'll just keep writing to me and it will cause endless problems. I can't see any other way out of this mess.


As someone who very recently received a "Dear John" over the phone, (even though my name isn't John), I must say something to those who are thinking of doing it. Don't! This is by far the hardest and most painful ordeal of my life, (and I've been through a lot). This isn't something any man or woman should have to go through. Please, do your man or woman a favor. Endure. Most of the time, it's just the fact that they are gone that is making you think you are unhappy with them. Just wait however long until they return home, and on that crappy 2 week leave doesn't count. Wait until the deployment is over. Trust me, I would have thanked her if she had waited. Yea, I would have still been very upset, but I would not have thought "Well, she was just leading me on for that whole thing". I would have understood that she just didn't want to make it worse for me. All we really have time to do over here is think about life. Think about our future, and think about the one we love most, (that's you). So please, what we have to go through out here is hard enough, please don't make it harder on us. Just wait it out. We will understand.

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