The term "Dear John letter" refers to a letter written by a woman to her husband or boyfriend to inform him their relationship is over, usually because she has found another man.
While the exact origins of the phrase are unknown, it is commonly believed to have been coined by Americans during World War II. 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 wait for their old one to return. As letters to servicemen from wives or girlfriends back home would typically contain affectionate language, a serviceman receiving a note beginning with a curt "Dear John" (as opposed to the expected "Dear Johnny", "My dearest John", or simply "Darling", for example) would instantly be aware of the letter's purpose.
A writer in the Democrat and Chronicle of Rochester, NY, summed it up in August 1945: This Dear John letter came from an experiment used to make a break-up better and not hurt as much.
There are a number of theories on why the name John is used rather than any other. John was a common name in America at the time the term was coined. John is also the name used in many other terms that refer to an anonymous man or men, such as "John Doe" or "John Smith". Further, there existed prior to World War II a radio program starring Irene Rich which was presented as a letter written by a gossipy female character to her never-identified romantic interest. It was both titled and opened with the words "Dear John", and may have contributed to the genesis of the term.
In more recent times, women have come to be subjected to such impersonal break-up letters as well. These are refered to as "Dear Jane" letters.
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