well, having wiped /dev /proc /sys and /tmp i can safely say it was nothing in there... i've installed gdb and done some experimenting. there is a pattern, i just don't know how to interpret it. most of the apps that die (& aren't just wrapper-scripts) give a message similar to the following:
Program received signal SIGSEGV, Segmentation fault.
0x4080ad17 in FT_Stream_OpenLZW () from /usr/lib/libfreetype.s0.6
the following apps spit this error at me: gaim, k3b, konqueror, aumix (xaumix works fine, oddly enough), and more.
the following apps still work: twm, xterm, aterm, gtoaster (gtk 1 maybe??), OOo, maple, and acroread (probably among others).
so, in summary, it's not as bleak as i thought but i'm still living on the command line, since the apps that do work, i never used!
please, please, someone who knows about gdb or freetype (or both) jump in and tell me what to do! (apart from telling me to reinstall freetype -- i've done that).