HIS inauguration was the biggest ever. Donald Trump could not make it through the first days of his presidency without saying something that was demonstrably untrue. The New York Times dubbed it a “falsehood”. When Mr Trump said that over 3m people had voted illegally, the Times headline was sharper: “Trump Repeats Lie About Popular Vote in Meeting with Lawmakers”. That word keeps recurring. CNN and MSNBC (both cable-news stations) recently said that Mr Trump had lied about the murder rate being the highest in almost a half-century. (It is in fact near historical lows.) Mr Trump says a lot of things that are nakedly false. Are they all lies?

There is a difference between falsehood and lying. The Oxford English Dictionary defines a “lie” as a “false statement made with intent to deceive”. It says “falsehood” is “an uttered untruth; a lie. Also false statements, uttered untruth, in general.” Falsehood is thus the wider word, covering lying and “uttered untruth, in general”. Lying requires an intent to deceive—which implies knowing that what you’re saying isn’t true.

What does a journalist know about the contents of Donald Trump’s mind? Certainly, the president cannot resist talking up his own greatness. Some have accused him of suffering from narcissistic personality disorder. Long-distance mental-health diagnoses are beyond the remit of the language columnist. But the media’s overuse of “lie” indicates that journalists gloss all too easily over the fine distinction between “lie” and “falsehood”.

Certain verbs, “factive” ones, can be used only when the information that follows is true. You can’t say, “He admitted that the moon was made of styrofoam” or “She learned that the UN was poisoning the water supply” unless you are aiming for a comic or jarring effect. “Admit”, “learn” and other words like them presuppose the truth of the following clause.

“Lie” is special, a special kind of “anti-factive” verb. Not only must the information in question be false, but the user of the verb “to lie” must know—or have very good reason to believe—that the speaker knows it to be false. If Mr Trump really does have a pathological need to believe fantastic things about his greatness, he may very well think that he must have beaten Hillary Clinton in the popular vote, and that the only reason he didn’t was down to the millions of illegal votes.

For a “lie”, Mr Trump would have to have known the truth. If he did, he told a whopper that immediately gave rise to demands for proof—proof he could not provide. Mr Trump did not modify his words, back down or duck further questions. If he was lying, he was setting himself up for an ever-bigger embarrassment. Instead, the president doubled down, promising a thorough investigation into voter fraud. It’s possible that he believes his own guff. The same goes for the murder rate: Mr Trump said something wildly wrong about something easily checkable, leaving an adviser, Kellyanne Conway, flailing to cover for him by saying that Mr Trump may have been “relying on data perhaps for a particular area; I don’t know who gave him that data”.

Using “lie” strictly is not easy; it is impossible to know another mind perfectly. But politics often has a way of leaving evidence: e-mails, memos, witnesses. Michael Flynn, briefly Mr Trump’s national security adviser, said he never discussed sanctions with Russia’s ambassador. The Washington Post reported that America’s spies knew otherwise. He had to resign.

Journalists should be tough when powerful people say untrue things. When those statements first hit the headlines, “false” packs plenty of punch. Reporters should demand to know the reason for the false statements. In cases like Mr Flynn’s, with clear evidence, they can say “he lied”. In cases like that of Mr Trump and the murder rate, journalists should demand to know his sources, perhaps asking whether the president trusts conspiracy-theorist websites over his own FBI. It hardly spares Mr Trump to call him “deluded” rather than a liar. Finally, there is the possibility that the president simply has no regard for the truth at all, not even caring whether he’s right or wrong. In that case, the press lacks an easy term for this kind of falsehood. Many won’t print “bullshit”, one proposed suggestion.

Using exact terms will only make it more powerful when the press catches Mr Trump red-handed in a “lie”. Reporters can be patient as well as precise. His presidency is still young.