The ‘Pakhtuns’ or the ‘Pashtuns’ has the same meaning and both are variants of the same word, while the ‘Pathan’ is an Indian variant of the word adopted by British. It simply designated Pashtu-speakers without racial implications.
The term Pakhtun or Pashtun, according to Raverty, is derived from the Persian word “Pasht” meaning ‘back’. Since the tribes lived on the back of the mountains, Persian called them Pashtun which is also pronounced Pakhtun. Some scholar’s think that the word Pashtun or Pakhtun comes from the Old Iranian words ‘Parsava parsa’ meaning robust men, knights.
In various Indo Pakistani dialects it was spelt as Pakhtana or Pathan.
According to the Encyclopedia of Islam the word Pathan is from the Sanskrit word Pratishthana. The Sanskrit word is also established from the fact that Muslim historians from Al – Beruni onward called them Afghans, never using the word Pathan which was an expression used extensively and exclusively by the Hindus.
According to Sir Olaf Caroe, “No Afghan or speaker of Pashtu ever referred to himself as a Pathan and the word is an Indian usage”. It is historically fact that neither Iban Batuta nor Baber mentioned the word ‘Pathan’. Baber gives the names of many east Afghanistan tribes, but nowhere does he mention Pathans, Pakhtuns or Pashtuns. He calls the people Afghans and their language Afghani”.
The most accurate word is Pakhtun or Pashtun (the hard and soft sounds are variants used in the north and south respectively).
So, this is historical proved from many historians that Pathans are not Pashtuns or Pakhtuns but an Indian variant which simply designate Pashtu speakers without racial implications.