Dear John Letter – Meaning, Origin & Correct Usage

Are you confused about what a dear John letter is? Let’s learn more about where this correspondence came from and how to use the term correctly.

You might have heard mention of a Dear John letter in pop culture and found yourself confused if the recipient’s name wasn’t John. So, what is a Dear John letter? A dear John letter is another word for a breakup note. It was historically mailed by women to their male partners on deployment overseas who wanted to end the relationship.

The concept re-entered public consciousness following the release of a 1972 episode of M*A*S*H in which a character received a letter reading: “Sometimes when you’re away from someone you thought you loved, you find yourself tested by being tempted. That’s what has happened to me, dear John.”

Although people rarely mail Dear John letters these days, if someone were to say they wanted to send a Dear John, they would be letting you know they’re preparing to break up with their partner. Let’s learn more about the origin of a Dear John letter.

You might also be interested in What is the Meaning of a Contemporary World?

Origin of Dear John Letters

In a nutshell, a Dear John letter is the opposite of a love letter. They were hallmarks of wartime breakups.

It’s not clear exactly when or where people started referring to them as Dear John letters. They’re likely to have originated from American GIs who experienced heartbreak during World War II, but letters of this nature likely existed long before that, for example, during World War I and the Russo-Japanese War.

After WWII, servicemen in the Navy or army during the Korean War and Afghanistan War may have also received these letters.

The use of the name John is a placeholder as it’s one of the most common male names in America. It may also be because the name John Doe is used as a placeholder for men who wish to remain anonymous during legal proceedings and is used by authorities if a male victim of a crime hasn’t been identified.

Although this is an American saying, it is widely understood and used by English speakers outside the United States.

Why Did Women Send Dear John Letters?

Why did women send Dear John letters?
During many wars, long-distance couples communicated solely through letters, which often took weeks to arrive

As social media and mobile phones weren’t around during many of these wars, the only communication for couples parted by long-distance was through letters, and even then, they could take weeks to arrive.

During WWII, women were encouraged to keep the troops’ spirits up by writing optimistic letters to their partners overseas. Letters from home brought great comfort and reminded them of life at home.

However, some women found that their relationship grew strained due to the prolonged separation. Women struggled with loneliness and the pressure of running the household. Or, on occasion, they met someone else they wanted to pursue a relationship with.

Certainly, in the case of WWII, occupants of some countries, such as England, faced their own war-derived horrors in the form of bombing campaigns like The Blitz

Women who wanted to end their relationships often felt conflicted. On one hand, breaking up with their partner or husband while he was on deployment would be devastating, but it would be cruel to give hope that their relationship would continue when their partners returned home.

We can also assume that the strain of living a lie was immense and added to the stress of life during a major conflict.

Many felt it would be best to break it off as soon as possible so their partner wouldn’t be disappointed after his service ended.

How To Use Dear John In A Sentence

While Dear Johns were traditionally physical break-up letters, some people will refer to the act of breaking up as a “Dear John.”

You might also notice that some English speakers will simply say “Dear John” instead of “a Dear John letter.” Leaving out the word “letter” doesn’t change the meaning; it’s a shorter way to express the same point, whether a note is involved or not.

Below are some example sentences using this term in a sentence:

  • My girlfriend has been acting cold lately; I fear she’s going to send a Dear John.
  • We should break up face-to-face. Sending him a Dear John letter would be cruel.
  • He’s pretty torn up after receiving a Dear John letter from his long-distance girlfriend.
  • I feel awful but I have to send him a Dear John, he lives on the other side of the world!
  • My grandfather saved a Dear John letter he got during the Vietnam War. She did him a favor, he probably wouldn’t have met my grandmother otherwise.

What Are Dear Jane Letters?

Breakup letters addressed to women by their, usually, male partners are known as Dear Jane letters. The term “Dear Jane” is much more recent as historically women were not conscripted into war and have only been able to join the army in later decades.

This is because Jane Doe is used to hide the identity of women in court cases or as a placeholder for unidentified women. The earliest use of Jane Doe dates back to the early 1700s.

Synonyms For Dear John Letters

Synonyms for Dear John letters
To prevent redundancy in your text, here are alternative terms for a Dear John letter

To avoid repetition in your writing, below are some synonyms for a Dear John letter.

  • A breakup note
  • A breakup letter
  • Breakup message
  • Goodbye letter
  • Farewell letter

If you liked this post, you might also be interested in our guide on how to write a love letter.

Dear John Letter: FAQs

What Are Some Examples of Dear John In Pop Culture?

Modern examples of references to Dear John letters in pop culture include Nicholas Sparks’ novel of the same name, which was adapted into a movie. Taylor Swift released a song called Dear John. A Dear John letter also famously appeared in an episode of M*A*S*H in the 1970s.

What Are Virtual Breakup Messages Called?

There isn’t an official name for a virtual breakup message sent via text or email. Most people will just refer to them as breakup messages, but you could call them a virtual Dear John letter if you wish.


  • Aisling is an Irish journalist and content creator with a BA in Journalism & New Media. She has bylines in OK! Magazine, Metro, The Inquistr, and the Irish Examiner. She loves to read horror and YA. Find Aisling on LinkedIn.