Open main menu

A Dear John letter is a letter written to a man by his wife or romantic partner to inform him their relationship is over because she has found another lover. The man is often a soldier stationed overseas, although the letter may be used in other ways, including being left for him to discover when he returns from work to an emptied house.


Origin and etymologyEdit

While the exact origins of the phrase are unknown, it is commonly believed to have been coined by Americans during World War II. "John" was the most popular and common baby name for boys in America every single year from 1880 through 1923,[1] making it a reasonable 'placeholder' name when denoting those of age for military service. Large numbers of American troops were stationed overseas for many months or years, and as time passed many of their wives or girlfriends decided to begin a relationship with a new man rather than to wait for the original one to return.[citation needed]

As letters to servicemen from wives or girlfriends back home would typically contain affectionate language (such as "Dear Johnny", "My dearest John", or simply "Darling"), a serviceman receiving a note beginning with a curt "Dear John" would instantly be aware of the letter's purpose.[citation needed]

A writer in the Democrat and Chronicle of Rochester, New York, summed it up in August 1945:

"Dear John," the letter began. "I have found someone else whom I think the world of. I think the only way out is for us to get a divorce," it said. They usually began like that, those letters that told of infidelity on the part of the wives of servicemen... The men called them "Dear Johns".[2]

An early reference to Dear John letters was made in a United Press article of March 21, 1944.[3] It has been claimed that the Vietnam War inspired more Dear John letters than any other US conflict.[4] Later, this type of letter formed background to the British television show Dear John, and the American sitcom of the same name.[citation needed] A Dear Jane letter is a contemporary version of a Dear John letter addressed to a female lover.[2]


This term is also used to describe letters written in the context of employment, either to inform an applicant that they had not been selected for a job,[5][6][7] why employees had been separated from work,[8] or from an employee to their employer upon the employee quitting.[9]

In popular cultureEdit

In country music, the concept of the "Dear John" letter was the subject of at least three recordings. Hank Williams recorded "Dear John", which was released as the B-side of "Cold, Cold Heart" in 1951. The second came in 1953, when then-unknown singers Jean Shepard and Ferlin Husky recorded a composition called "A Dear John Letter". Shepard sang the refrain while Husky recited his part—playing the part of John, a soldier stationed overseas during a conflict, possibly the then-ongoing Korean War. The young soldier excitedly receives and opens a letter from his girlfriend, but then finds heartbreak: She is breaking off the relationship and is marrying John's brother, Don. The song was a No. 1 country and No. 4 pop hit in the late summer of 1953. Several other artists and duet pairings recorded the song in the late 1960s and early 1970s, with the Vietnam War ongoing; meanwhile, Shepard and Husky recorded a follow-up later in 1953 called "Forgive Me, John," which also became a best-selling country hit.[citation needed] In this song, the former girlfriend realizes her mistake and begs John to take her back; he refuses rather than betray his brother.

An old joke goes that an Army private tells his bunkmate that his girl just wrote him a Dear John letter. The bunkmate asks him, "Well, what did she say?" The private replies, "That's all she wrote," which has become a cultural joke in itself.

In episode 32 of season 1 of the television comedy Hogan's Heroes, Sgt. Carter receives a Dear John letter and is insistent on leaving the POW camp rescue operation to go home.

In the late 1980's and early 1990's Judd Hirsch started in a TV series on NBC called Dear John, where the protagonist's wife left him at the beginning of the show[10]

The song “Billy and Sue” from BJ Thomas in 1972 describes a soldier at war receiving a Dear John Letter, standing up, and being shot.

The song "Dear John" from the 1982 album "You Make The Heat" by The Producers describes a soldier killing himself by walking into enemy fire after receiving a letter from his girlfriend back home telling him she has moved on.

The Taylor Swift song "Dear John" from her album Speak Now describes an open letter to an ex-boyfriend.[citation needed]

The Jim Croce song "Operator (That's Not the Way It Feels)" was inspired during Croce's military service, where he saw lines of soldiers waiting to use the outdoor phone on base, many of them calling their wife or girlfriend to see if their Dear John letter was true.[11]

In the hip-hop/R&B song "Always on Time" by Ja Rule featuring Ashanti, Ja Rule mentions a "Dear Ja" letter, implying the same type of relationship situation.[citation needed]

In the R&B song "grapvyne" by Brownstone they say "Now here's a Dear John letter that I've written just for you" Implying that she is leaving her lover.[citation needed]

In the 1994 film, Dumb and Dumber, Harry (Jeff Daniels' character) explains to Lloyd (Jim Carrey's character) how a former girlfriend had sent him a "John Deere" letter, confusing the phrase with equipment manufacturer John Deere.[citation needed]

The song '1-Luv' on 1995 album 'In a Major Way' by Vallejo rapper E-40 includes a reference to receipt of a 'Dear John letter' while incarcerated.[citation needed]

In the movie Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, "Dear John" is the phrase written on one of the two nuclear bombs (the other one is labeled "Hi there") carried by the B-52 airplane piloted by Major T. J. "King" Kong.[citation needed]

"Dear Johns and alcohol" is the first line of the Issues song "Rank Rider" which talks of a soldier in a relationship with someone taking advantage of their significant other's absence.[citation needed]

See alsoEdit