German is famous for being able to put together random words to make compounds which combine the meanings. For example if you have a game about cats you can call it a "Katzenspiel". You won't find this in a dictionary but the meaning is obvious from the component words and a certain amount of context. But there are other compounds which have an established meaning and can be found in a dictionary, for example "Eisenerz" obviously means "iron ore" but it's a common enough word to get a dictionary entry and a standardized meaning. Sometimes the meanings of these common compounds drift and they no longer mean what the component words imply. One group has words that are made up, used, and thrown away like tissues, and the other has words that are permanent parts of the language, possibly with their own independent meanings. Are there labels for these groups?

3 Answers 3


Established compounds that may also show a drift towards new meanings, are generally called lexicalised. The opposite is called in German okkasionelle Bildung ("occasional word formation"?). These cases may follow productive patterns or may be individual analogies that are motivated by a particular communicative situation (explanation translated from Fleischer & Barz, Wortbildung der deutschen Gegenwartssprache, 4th ed. De Gruyter, Berlin 2012, p.23). There are also cases in between, of course. Dictionary makers make individual decisions as to when listing a word will be felt useful or necessary.

  • So "lexicalized" vs. "occasional". I like the word "occasional" here; it's not the usual meaning in English but it can also mean "used for a specific purpose", as in "occasional music". And yes, there is a large grey area between the two extremes. I'm sure some compounds that don't appear in dictionaries are part of the jargon for specific fields, and for someone in one of those fields they might as well be lexicalized.
    – RDBury
    Dec 19, 2023 at 2:36

I personally think there is way too much focus on this (apparently "exotic") language "capability". Just like English can form compound terms, German can do as well. Nothing "exotic" about that. We simply save paper by omitting spaces....

snow tyres <> Winterreifen

snow tyres mounting service <> Winterreifenmontagedienst

light bulb <> Glühbirne

And just like "light bulb" tends to have an entry in most English dictionaries, "Glühbirne" has one in the German ones. You can also form such "ad-hoc" compounds in English, like "project office", for example, and that compound is rarely to be found in both German and English dictionaries (although both are certainly valid). I really can't see a big difference between the languages except that single space English tends to expend.

Note that "Glühbirne" obviously must have a separate entry, because the "Glüh-" part of that compound is not a word in German. And that maybe is a major difference, that some compound words in German can drop some letters (but you normally wouldn't do that in "ad-hoc" compounds) from their components, or maybe even insert some letters ("Fugenlaute"), like in "Einkommenssteuer".

So, whether a term shows up in a dictionary or not simply depends on its frequency in common language and whether the compound components have their own entries. And just as English has no specific terms for the compound terms they put in dictionaries vs. the ones they don't, German has none for them as well (at least I don't know of a specific term. If you absolutely want one, form a new compound ;) ).

I might agree, though, that German

  1. Tends to have a higher frequency of such compound terms than, for example, English
  2. (maybe because of (1)) Has evolved at least some of them compounds to a more abstract level than other languages have, like the famous "Weltschmerz" that you could form in English as "world pain" (which wouldn't mean anything immediately obvious), but means a lot more than just the two words modifying each other.

But that's more about common usage of the tooling your language provides than the language toolset as such.

  • This is simply the normal distinction between "free combinations" and "idioms" that all languages have. The fact that German doesn't use spaces in compounds and most other languages do is linguistically irrelevant. Dec 18, 2023 at 11:43
  • Again, I don't think there is such a big difference. Take "Schnellzug" - clearly a modifier "schnell" applied to the noun "Zug". I might maybe agree that in German compounds are more frequent than in English.
    – tofro
    Dec 18, 2023 at 11:44
  • So you're suggesting something like "Ad-hoc-Komposition" in German or "ad hoc compound" in English. Perhaps I'm biased, but it seems like compounds in German are more frequent than in English, and two words together would not always be interpreted as a compound in English. For example I'd interpret "cat game" as a modifier "cat" applied to a noun "game", not as a hyphenable compound "cat-game". That's why I was thinking there might be specific terminology in German.
    – RDBury
    Dec 18, 2023 at 11:45
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    'but you normally wouldn't do that in "ad-hoc" compounds' - I don't think so. While there does not seem to be a fixed rule (especially one that holds across different regions where German is spoken), the question whether or not to insert a Fugenlaut after a given component of a compound seems to depend mostly on the preceding component, not on whether the compound is formed ad-hoc. "Einkommensraumschiff", "Katzenwartung" and "Kriegsbeleidigung" (to create some very nonsensical examples) sound "correct" to me, while the corresponding compounds without Fugenlaute do not. Dec 18, 2023 at 19:47
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    "Dropping letters" is the wrong frame. It's about morphology; parts of words don't need to be words (free morpehmes), they can be stems or affixes (bound morpehmes).
    – David Vogt
    Dec 19, 2023 at 0:05

I feel that the question is after a cluster of linguistic terminology, not really covered in the other answers, so I'm dropping some more terms from my morphology and other textbooks here.

When a derivation, such as composition, can be used actively in word formation, it is productive. A typical (although not necessary) property of derivation is that derived lexemes have non-compositional meaning: they are semantically idiosyncratic, and their meaning cannot simply be predicted from the meaning of the base. While such forms can be formed spontaneously, they are usually idiomatized (as otherwise the intended meaning would not really be useful), and, over time, lexicalized.

Idiomatic meaning can develop in multiple forms. One is through semantic change, where the meaning shifts, specializes, or generalizes over time. Another is due to metaphor, allusion, or exocentricity (e.g, "pickpocket").

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