I have been reading a book titled "Hillbilly Elegy," and I have its Korean translation too. But at some part, especially which I am curious about in meaning, the translation seems so uncertain, so I want someone who is a native English speaker to let me know what this "get to" means here.

If you already read the book, it might be much better. But no problem. Here is part of the book, which will help you understand the meaning.

... Most of this tradition was far from child appropriate. Almost all of it involved the kind of violence that should land someone in jail. Much of it centered on how the county in which Jackson was situated--Breathitt--earned its alliterative nickname, "Bloody Breathitt." There were many expectations, but they all had one theme: The people of Breathitt hated certain things, and they didn't need the law to snuff them out.

One of the most common tales of Breathitt's gore revolved around an older man in town who was accused of raping a young girl. Mamaw told me that, days before his trial, the man was found facedown in a local lake with sixteen bullet wounds in his back. The authorities never investigated the murder, and the only mention of the incident appeared in the local newspaper on the morning his body was discovered. In an admirable display of journalistic pith, the paper reported: "Man found dead. Foul play expected." "Foul play expected?" my grandmother would roar. "You're goddamned right. Bloody Breathitt got to that son of a bitch." ]

What is the exact meaning of this "got to"? Please let me know really specifically. Plus could you also explain the meaning of "my grandmother would roar" here? The tense of "would" is always confusing.


1 Answer 1


my grandmother would roar


my grandmother was in the habit of bellowing

'Would' is used in sense 27 from the OED entry for the veb 'Will':

Was (were) accustomed to; used to.

example: W. Holt Beacon for Blind xxx. 307 He would often return home exhausted from his work, and when Mrs. Fawcett read to him he would frequently fall fast asleep.

The implication is that this story was commonly told and this was her habitual reaction to it.

What the phrase

Bloody Breathitt got to him

tells us the effect that that the community of Breathitt have had on the rapist.There are some closely related options here:

 To get to - -:

2 intransitive. Chiefly North American. To reach the attention or feelings of (an audience, etc.) with a message


4 intransitive. colloquial (originally U.S.). To have an overpowering negative effect upon the spirits or outlook of (a person); to worry, depress, or obsess. Oxford English Dictionary

For either of these there is an underlying common aspect of the rapists outlook having been in some way adjusted by the community.

My view is that taking this as a tongue-in-cheek or ironic understatement of his murder adequately explains the usage; the Breathitt community have achieved the ultimate negative effect on the rapist’s outlook, his killing is understated for a blackly comic effect.

However, there is also a possibility that the use is intended to have something of a double meaning, that she is literally saying they 'adjusted his outlook', but with a slightly hidden acknowledgement that that was achieved by physically attacking him.

While I can't find a neat citation for the meaning or 'attack/kill', the OED does give us

to get at —— 1. intransitive. colloquial. a. To attack, assail; to make destructive inroads on. In some uses overlapping with sense 2a.

(sense 2a) To get hold of, come at; to reach, arrive at

While this is given as 'get at' rather than 'get to', the phrase 'got to' is well attested for describing the attack of disease or other agents on the body:

He looked at nothing but the end zone. But the cramps got to him and, at the Michigan 18, so did the Wolverines.


his father had been here on many occasions before the cancer got to him.


but the drugs got to him before we could find the proper help.


But before he can kill himself, the AIDS got to him first.


The disease got to him first. He died at age thirtyfour from typhoid

Therefore in this interpretation 'Bloody Breathitt' is almost likened to a disease that 'got to him'.

  • Thanks a lot. But still hard to understand "get to." Where can I find a trace that there is 'out to get' hidden, and how is it changed to "get to" while still there is no "out"? Does this "get to" have a meaning of "succeeded in punishing him themselves"?
    – Blaire S
    Commented Oct 25, 2019 at 6:03
  • 1
    @BlaireS perhaps you are right and that doesn’t map well, also may be more of a British usage. I’ve found something that may sit better with you and will edit the answer.
    – Spagirl
    Commented Oct 25, 2019 at 7:44
  • 1
    Neither "out to get", nor "get to" in the sense of an overpowering negative effect, quite seems right to me. I'm thinking of "get to" in the physical sense of getting to a person or place to perform some desired act (metonymically, Breathitt's community "got to" the man in order to kill him). But I couldn't find a good dictionary reference for the meaning I'm thinking of.
    – Rand al'Thor
    Commented Oct 25, 2019 at 8:42
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    @Randal'Thor I've provided a citation for the meaning I think is appropriate, I'd be interested to see other answers setting out alternatives :)
    – Spagirl
    Commented Oct 25, 2019 at 9:22
  • 1
    @Randal'Thor On reflections...What do you think about the idea what the use is intended to have a double meaning, that she is literally saying they adjusted his outlook, but with a slightly hidden acknowledgement that that was achieved by physically getting to him?
    – Spagirl
    Commented Oct 25, 2019 at 10:21

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