THE word “hero” is much debased these days. My dictionary defines it as “a person, typically a man, who is admired for their courage or outstanding achievements”. Leaving aside the question of whether the qualifiying “typically a man” should be in an edition of the Oxford Concise Dictionary published in 1999, I think we can say that 99.9 per cent of those described as a hero today do not match the definition.

Sportsmen and women, in particular, are routinely given the status for scoring a winning goal or winning a race. Pauline Radcliffe, for instance, is a brave and successful marathon runner, but does that make her a hero? David Beckham scores fantastic goals from free kicks but is that heroic?

The problem intensifies when we come to members of the armed services. Those serving in Iraq and Afghanistan are frequently described as heroes whether or not they are actually engaged in situations that might require a show of “courage or outstanding achievement”. Some are and act accordingly, and they should be recognised, but not all. There are currently complaints that Britain's Ministry of Defence is refusing to issue a special medal for those serving in Helmland in Afghanistan because of the dangerous conditions there.

Perhaps that would be right, but how many more people in and out of the services are performing dangerous tasks without thought of such special recognition? Do we want to follow the American military practice of awarding a medal for “being there”?