I’m so used to news media having uninformed pieces on language that it’s a pleasure to find exceptions; BBC News had a magazine story on loan words by Philip Durkin, who — being deputy chief editor of the OED — is definitely up to the task, with interesting tidbits like this:
Today English borrows words from other languages with a truly global reach. Some examples that the Oxford English Dictionary suggests entered English during the past 30 years include tarka dal, a creamy Indian lentil dish (1984, from Hindi), quinzhee, a type of snow shelter (1984, from Slave or another language of the Pacific Coast of North America), popiah, a type of Singaporean or Malaysian spring roll (1986, from Malay), izakaya, a type of Japanese bar serving food (1987), affogato, an Italian dessert made of ice cream and coffee (1992).
I found the odd-looking quinzhee in the OED and discovered it’s pronounced /ˈkwɪnzi/ (QUIN-zee, just like the traditional pronunciation of Quincy) and is from “Slave kǫ́ézhii, lit. ‘in the shelter’, or < a similar form in another Athabaskan language." And they ran a followup piece in which Durkin “looks at readers’ own favourite examples”; there are lots more goodies there. A sample paragraph:
It is often useful to distinguish between immediate and remoter origins of words. For instance, among the French borrowings into English in the original article, peace comes from an earlier form of French paix which goes right back to the Latin origins of the French language (the Romans spoke about pax), but war comes from a northern variant of French guerre, a word which French originally borrowed from a Germanic relative of German and Dutch. A similar example noted by a reader is boulevard, a word that English borrowed from French in the 1760s, but that French itself borrowed in the Middle Ages from Dutch bollwerk or a related word, making the word seem more familiar by substituting the ending -ard of words like placard. In some cases English acts as the middle-man — cake probably came into English from early Scandinavian in the 1200s, but has since been borrowed from English into numerous languages in Europe and beyond.
Unfortunately, the last paragraph goes a bit astray, beginning:
Just sometimes, though, many languages across the world will have similar words in the same meaning for reasons other than borrowing. The clearest example is probably from words for “mother” and “father” around the world that are superficially similar to mama, dada, or papa. Such words all ultimately go back to the sounds that babies throughout the world produce when they first start to master the art of producing distinct speech sounds, the familiar “mamamamama” or “dadadadadada” that few parents can help interpreting as their own special greeting, and that have given rise to many and various words for mother and father all around the world.
Obviously, a far more common reason for languages having “similar words in the same meaning for reasons other than borrowing” is that they are cognate, like French cinq and Spanish cinco. I presume the problem lies in the editing process; it’s just a miracle there aren’t more blunders on that account. At any rate, I encourage BBC News and everyone else to let professionals write their language pieces instead of inserting ignorant reporters into the mix. (Thanks, Paul!)
Update (August 2015): I should have added this infochart with accompanying essay by Durkin back in 2014, but better late than never.