You select words based on how common they are, and on how hard it is to deduce the meaning of a compound from its components. In a shorter dictionary, if you have “Spionage” and “Satellit” listed, you might assume that the meaning of the compound can be deduced. On the other hand, knowing “Frucht” (fruit, with a secondary meaning of embryo) and “Wasser” (water), you might find it hard to guess at “Fruchtwasser” (amniotic fluid), so that’s a good reason to put “Fruchtwasser” in your dictionary.
I don’t speak German nor read their dictionaries. But I suspect that German readers are able to break these words down into their elements in most cases and only the elements are included in the dictionary with the meaning of the compound words being obvious from those.
It’s equivalent to how English dictionaries don’t have several pages of words that start with un-. If you know the meaning of words like broken, known, or loved, you’d don’t need separate definitions for unbroken, unknown, or unloved.
Does German have an issue with many compound words having different meanings to their constituents? Two English examples that come to mind are meanings ascribed to cupboard as opposed to cup board, and saucepan as a sauce pan, and much else besides.
What type of dictionary exactly are we talking about? The famous Wörterbuch in German is the Duden http://www.duden.de/definition/spio-spli - which is the definite authority on how to correctly spell words (there is no Argument about descriptive vs. prescriptive because there are rules about how to spell things).
Even the Duden however, is seperated into up to 10 books, a Fremdwörterbuch (words with foreign origins, or loan words) a grammar book (understanding why this word is written capital and that one not, why These are written together and those apart - only small examples).
Before online dictionaries and Wikipedia, it was a lot of Trouble to look up words in other languages, because no matter how big it might Sound that it has 20 000 words … the one I was looking for was never inside (a lot probably slang, colloquial usage and context). That’s where the Internet is really really helpful understanding things.
Giles gave an example, but offhand I have no idea how many words (percentagewise or total) that might apply to. Unless you’re a Linguist, or stumbling over false friends when learning a new language, you usually don’t think about oddities and exceptions in your mother tongue.
I wouldn’t have thought myself of Fruchtwasser as amniotic fluid without context, and how it differs from Fruit and water (though not unlogical, because Leibesfrucht - fruit of the Body is an old euphemism for the Fetus/ Embryo.)
Aditionally, it’s easy to confuse similar sounding words, esp. loan words - logically and logistically mean different things.
I know that cupboard has been extended to a general word for cabinet or closet, though that’s mostly British usage. What is the second definition for saucepan? Is that also something British or Australian? It doesn’t have one in the U.S.
Expanding on constanze’s example entry from the Duden:
Here’s a photograph of page 247 of the 21th, 1996 volume edition of Duden, vol. 1 (we did not buy an analog dictionary after 1996…)
Under the Elefant (elephant) head you’ll see that Elefantenbulle and Elefantenkuh (male and female elephants) have no definition, but the metathorical usages Elefantenhochzeit, Elefantenrennen, and Elefantenrunde have (and the nonobvious medical condition Elefantiasis also has)
Our dictionaries solely have the moregeneralmeaning. It’s origins are certainly in a pan just for cooking sauces and it would not be unusual to see it used that way but that specificity seems to have been eroded a long time ago.
The premise of the OP is kind of misguided. The OP assumes that just because English has a space between constituent parts that the dictionary doesn’t consider them compound words. In fact, that is just a convention of orthographical tradition. (And with time, the space often gets eliminated, e.g., data base = database).
If you look under electrical in the OED, for example, you’ll find that it lists quite a few words with which it effectively combines to make a compound word, even though we keep a space between them (electrical charge, electrical conductivity, electrical power, etc.). In German, you also have such combinations–and you just take out the space.
Of course, the editors of dictionaries make a decision which words to list on their own, and that always is determined by the size of the edition.
English is really not all that much different from German in this respect. Everybody freaks out because in German you don’t put a space, and they think it’s some kind of really difficult thing. But that’s only in print. When we talk in English, our words–in reality–are just as long as the German words–because when we talk, of course, the spaces between the constituent parts of a compound words are irrelevant. YOU DON’T HEAR THE SPACES.
This takes me back 60 years when I took German in college. These compounds drove me absolutely nuts. My dictionary (Cassels) listed some compounds, but certainly not all and not all the unlisted ones could be guessed from the elements.
But the problem isn’t really that they are compounds. I imagine all languages have word combinations, whether they are compressed into one word or not, whose meaning is not guessable from their elements. The example of “brown study” mentioned above is a superb example.
Here is another kind of example. It is literally true of a building on the McGill campus: The BROWN building is a brown BUILDING. There isn’t even a proper way of writing it, but stress the capitalized words.