The book was originally published with the title The Naked Lunch in Paris in July 1959 by Olympia Press. Because of US obscenity laws, a complete American edition (by Grove Press) did not follow until 1962. It was titled Naked Lunch and was substantially different from the Olympia Press edition, because it was based on an earlier 1958 manuscript in Allen Ginsberg's possession. The article "the" in the title was never intended by the author, but added by the editors of the Olympia Press 1959 edition. Nonetheless The Naked Lunch remained the title used for the 1968 and 1974 Corgi Books editions, and the novel is often known by the alternative name, especially in the UK where these editions circulated.
Burroughs states in his introduction that Jack Kerouac suggested the title. "The title means exactly what the words say: naked lunch, a frozen moment when everyone sees what is on the end of every fork." In a June 1960 letter to Allen Ginsberg, Kerouac said that he was pleased that Burroughs had credited him with the title. He states that Ginsberg misread "Naked Lust" from the manuscript, and only he noticed. Kerouac did not specify which manuscript and critics could only speculate until, in 2003, Burroughs scholar Oliver Harris established that, in his Lower East Side apartment in fall 1953, Ginsberg had been reading aloud to Kerouac from the manuscript of Queer, which Burroughs had just brought with him from Mexico City. For the next five years, Burroughs used the title to refer to a three-part work made up of 'Junk,' 'Queer' and 'Yage,' corresponding to his first three manuscripts, before it came to describe the book later published as Naked Lunch, which was based largely on his 1957 'Interzone' manuscript.
In 1971, the rock group Steely Dan took its name from the name of a sex device that appears in this book.