T lymphocytes bearing alphabeta T cell receptors are pivotal in the immune response of most vertebrates. For example, helper T cells orchestrate antibody production by B cells as well as stimulating other cells, whereas cytotoxic T cells kill virally infected or abnormal cells. Regulatory T cells act to dampen responsiveness, and natural killer-like T cells monitor lipid metabolism. The specificity of these cells is governed by the alphabeta T cell receptors - antibody-like heterodimeric receptors that detect antigenic fragments (peptides) or lipids bound to histocompatibility molecules. Intriguing clues as to how these peculiar ligands are recognized have gradually emerged over the years and tell a remarkable story of biochemical and cellular novelty. Here we summarize some of the more recent work on alphabeta T cell receptor recognition and discuss the implications for activation.