Eliot originally considered titling the poem He do the Police in Different Voices. In the version of the poem Eliot brought back from Switzerland, the first two sections of the poem—'The Burial of the Dead' and 'A Game of Chess'—appeared under this title. This strange phrase is taken from Charles Dickens' novel Our Mutual Friend, in which the widow Betty Higden says of her adopted foundling son Sloppy, "You mightn't think it, but Sloppy is a beautiful reader of a newspaper. He do the Police in different voices." Some critics use this working title to support the theory that, while there are many different voices (speakers) in the poem, there is only one central consciousness. What was lost by the rejection of this title Eliot might have felt compelled to restore by commenting on the commonalities of his characters in his note about Tiresias, stating that 'What Tiresias sees, in fact, is the substance of the poem.'
In the end, the title Eliot chose was The Waste Land. In his first note to the poem he attributes the title to Jessie L. Weston's book on the Grail legend, From Ritual to Romance. The allusion is to the wounding of the Fisher King and the subsequent sterility of his lands; to restore the King and make his lands fertile again, the Grail questor must ask, "What ails you?" A poem strikingly similar in theme and language called Waste Land, written by Madison Cawein, was published in 1913 in Poetry.
The poem's title is often mistakenly given as "Waste Land" (as used by Weston) or "Wasteland", omitting the definite article. However, in a letter to Ezra Pound, Eliot politely insisted that the title was three words beginning with "The".