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What controls font settings?

I was using wmaker on Debian unstable. During my netinst installation I did not use tasksel to pick "desktop" or "base system". I've manually installed xserver-xorg, etc., to get my desktop going.

Eventually I installed emelfm and its fonts appeared small and tight. After a few days I did an apt-get dist-upgrade and the fonts looked spotty in emelfm, iceweasel, and just wmaker in general. I installed xfce4 tonight and the fonts and GUI became really smooth. But emelfm and iceweasel and the xfce4 menu still has largish looking fonts, although they are smooth.

Aside from configuring each app to use specific fonts, what's controlling this 'under the hood' font activity so to speak?

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